New York — When employees experience a break in service due to an extended illness, vacation, pregnancy or injury, it is often accompanied by undue stress, uncertainty and anxiety. Returning to work, whether it is with some restrictions or with no limitations, can be an incredibly daunting hurdle for even the most seasoned professional.

Most studies conclude having a well-functioning union and effective stewardship is one of the best ways to combat stress in the workplace. A union gives workers a vehicle to deal with most of the issues that employees refer to as the leading causes of their stress and anxiety when returning to the job.

If you are lucky enough to have productive union stewardship in your workplace, chances are the employee returning to work has a very good probability of making a complete and smooth transition. In this article, we will introduce some helpful guidelines to assist you in your effort to help fellow union members successfully return to work.

Some helpful hints

Kathy Button

CSEA Western Region President Kathy Button, a seasoned veteran with many years of experience helping workers get back on their feet, says union stewards must maintain credibility by being honest with every stakeholder involved– fellow union members, other co-workers and management. She also says it’s important for union reps to do an employee readiness assessment from the get-go.

Button said, “A steward who misleads or skirts the truth won’t remain credible for very long. An accurate assessment of the workers mental and physical well-being is in everyone’s best interest– even if the documentation says otherwise. Do your homework.”

Button also says stewards should be as knowledgeable as you possibly can about the collective bargaining agreement and terms and conditions of employment, work rules and policies, supervisor and manager responsibilities and the issues impacting all the workers you represent.

She added, “Be a reliable source of information. If you are asked a question and you don’t know the answer, say “I don’t know” – then get the information and get it back to the member as soon as possible. And when you say you are going to do something, always follow through.”

An effective union steward should always be accessible to fellow members and management. Many times that means talking with members after regular working hours and being there for them when they are in crisis. Being a good listener always helps too.

Be supportive and thoughtful of workers when they return to work. When you are approached with complaints about a fellow employee who is having difficulty making adjustments, be supportive; offer them understanding, resources, encouragement and guidance in addressing their situation.

When you build relationships of trust and solidarity, you will probably be more successful when asking union members and management to support a co-worker returning to work. You can motivate others leading by example. Take the initiative to talk to members one-on-one. It is a more personal and effective way to share important information about the work site, especially when a co-worker is re-entering the workforce. Button also says it’s very important to not “overshare.”

Ask your employer to consider return-to-work strategies

Many return-to-work (RTW) programs suggested by the United States Department of Labor were originally designed to reduce workers’ compensation costs for employers. However, they can do much more– they can improve productivity and worker morale across the workplace; they can save employees time and money and they can protect employees and employers from loss of talent. If you do not have these programs in place at your worksite, you should recommend making it an agenda item at your next labor-management meeting.

Examples of effective RTW strategies include offering the opportunity to work part time from home, telecommuting, modifying work duties, modifying schedules and implementing reasonable accommodations to provide employees with the tools and resources they need to carry out their specific job responsibilities.

In many workplaces, in both the public and private sector, flexible work arrangements, accessible technology and office automation have increased the capabilities of employees and made it easier for them to do their jobs in alternative ways.

This allows the employee to protect their earning power while at the same time boost employer productivity. Furthermore, in many instances, the ability to return to work after injury or illness plays an important role in the employee’s actual recovery and healing process.

Another recommendation to help ease the transition for a co-worker returning to the job site is starting an Employee Resource Group (ERG). These groups can help encourage employees to work together to address health-related problems and issues that impact each other and the workplace.

And finally, communication, flexibility, understanding and a good support network are often the most important aspects to consider when managing a fellow union member’s return to work– and helping them find the right combination to the work-life balance equation.

-Ove Overmyer

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About Author

Ove Overmyer

Ove Overmyer is an award winning photojournalist and writer who has promoted the virtue of working people and the value of public service throughout his career. His work has been published by many well-respected international media outlets, including PBS Moyers & Co., Steward Update UCS Worker Institute Cornell ILR, CBS News, The Weather Channel, SCI-FY Channel, Associated Press and LOGO-TV. Before joining the CSEA Communications Department staff in 2015, Overmyer was a CSEA member employed by the City of Rochester and an officer of the union for more than 18 years. He covers a 14 county area of Western New York and lives in Rochester, NY.

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