How To Return To Work

By Tabitha McIntosh

Step One: Accept that you have made life more difficult for your colleagues

That thought that keeps you up at night is correct. There’s no way around this: your absence did indeed make life more difficult for everyone else. Supply staff had to be found in a very difficult season for recruitment and budgets. Classes had to be moved around or swapped and duties re-allocated; other people took on your pastoral responsibilities, your mountain of marking, your relentless data deadlines and your bad jokes. You left a hole in the department. It had to be worked around and stepped over. Occasionally things fell into it, never to be seen again. And here’s why that’s okay: it’s a testament to the fact that you and the job you do are necessary.

Step Two: Become your own embarrassingly positive therapist

There’s a famously cringe-inducing scene in ‘Good Will Hunting’ in which a therapist played by Robin Williams chants ‘It’s not your fault’ at Matt Damon’s tortured, blue-collar genius face until a breakdown and a breakthrough of some kind happens and everyone lives happily ever after. I’m speaking as an American when I say that it may be the most American scene ever committed to film. Hopeful, positive, fatuously affirming, and, above all, achingly sincere.

You need some of that. Because it’s not your fault. That hole in the department into which half your Year 11 folders have disappeared? Not your fault. The planning your colleagues had to scramble to complete? Not your fault. The reason for your absence? Not your fault. You’re not weak. You’re not a failure. It wasn’t your fault. It’s not your fault. Sincerely. Try telling yourself in an American accent if your usual one is too embarrassed.

Step Three: Stay out of your work emails while you’re recovering

You’ve been signed off for a reason. If you’re not fit for physical work, you’re absolutely not fit for intradepartmental emails either. Following Step One means accepting that your absence has made life more challenging for your colleagues. Following Step Two means that you have embraced this and moved beyond the guilt. Looking at your department’s emails will undo all your hard work. It’s one thing to know that you left a hole in the department. It’s quite another to read the resulting chaos happen in real time. You can’t do anything about what the Y9s said to the supply teacher just before the end of Period 5. You are powerless in the face of Alex in Year 7s lost blazer. Don’t even try. Remember: It’s not your fault. Or your problem.

Step Four: Keep the school up to date if you can

No one expects you to have predictable and convenient progress towards returning to the workplace. But everyone appreciates a timeline if one is available. Depending on the reason for your absence, you will be seeing medical, rehabilitation and occupational health professionals who can communicate with the school for you. None of them will send any information that you haven’t seen and agreed to in advance: your privacy is absolutely crucial to their work. I have found it enormously helpful to hand communication over to objective and impartial professionals who aren’t burdened with silly things like anxiety and guilt and the need to make self-deprecating jokes about 1990s Matt Damon films.

Step Five: Arrange a phased return to work

Congratulations! Everyone wants you back: the school wants you back, the government wants you back, and you want to be back. The best way to make sure that you come back and stay back is with a well-thought-through planned return to work shaped by professional input. Your medical treatment will have occupational health assessment built into it. The school will arrange an occupational health assessment for their own purposes. Programmes like Access to Work can help with the commute while you continue to rehabilitate. The most important thing here is that you don’t trip yourself up with insecurity and a misplaced sense of obligation. If you try to step back completely into the role you played before you left, you are very likely to bounce back out. You aren’t completely better yet. You aren’t where you were before your absence. And that’s fine. Say it with me: it’s not your fault.

Step Six: Arrange to visit the school before your official return date

No matter how well, how often, or in how Bostonian an accent you have told yourself that it’s not your fault, the first return to the building is going to bring all that guilt, insecurity and anxiety screaming back to life. It absolutely helps to have gone in and said hello to colleagues. It is also absolutely, brain-meltingly, existentially terrifying. I chose to do it at a time when I knew the entrance and playgrounds wouldn’t be swarming with teenagers and when most of the teaching staff would be in lessons. It might help to have someone meet you at the entrance and walk with you. You may instead choose to stalk, slink or perambulate in the otherwise self-conscious manner of your choice. Either way: get in there. It helps.

Step Seven: Start shadowing the school day

In the final weeks leading up to your return to the classroom, you must begin the Herculean process of adjusting your circadian rhythms, your appetite and your bladder. You need to be re-institutionalised. Start going to sleep and waking up at the same time you would for school. Experiment with going out and staying out for the length of your usual school day. If you have a long commute, build that into your experimental work day, but reward yourself with a destination more relaxing than a Friday afternoon classroom on a windy day. One of the milder circles of hell for example.

Step Eight: The most difficult step

Accept yourself. I’ve been a Type One diabetic for two decades and thought I had stopped internalising ableism. As far as I was concerned, my erratic blood glucose peaks and troughs were a delightful eccentricity akin to coin collecting or weaving one’s own socks (if sock-weaving necessitated the occasional trip to A&E). But having had a stroke feels different. It has peeled my thick skin back to the vulnerable nerve endings that are exposed when you first find out that your temporary sickness is permanent. That your illness is chronic. That your condition is life-limiting. That you are never going to get better. The final step is the most difficult because it needs you to let go of that idea of ‘better.’ This is you. This is me. And I’m going back exactly as I am.


You can read more articles by Tabitha McIntosh here.