In the age of burnout, how companies keep their employees coming back

In the age of burnout, how companies keep their employees coming back
Image: Hokyoung Kim for Quartz
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Patricia Acensi-Ferré learned that she had breast cancer on Valentine’s Day.

It was 2013, and she was a 35-year old new mom caring for a baby at the tail end of her maternity leave. Her situation was serious. But she decided to fight it with humor: She named her tumor “Roberto” and, when her hair started falling out, she named one of her wigs “Ginger.” She survived a 15-month-long treatment that grew to involve surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Today, she is cancer-free. 

With the date of her return set for March 2014, though, Acensi-Ferré received another blow: While she was away, her job had been eliminated. Before her cancer, she had worked for about 15 years in the French government. In accordance with French law, Acensi-Ferré was offered another project—but it was unrelated to her interests and experience. 

Even before her maternity leave, Acensi-Ferré had felt like her employer wanted her to quit. The French have a name for it: placardisé, meaning “relegated to a closet.” Now, she had had enough; she negotiated an exit package with her employer, and then quit.

“Even without the cancer, the moral limit had been surpassed from my point of view,” she says. “I think it could not have happened any other way.” But still, she wondered how her situation could have played out differently. 

Acensi-Ferré’s double-whammy of personal transitions may be uncommon, but her experience taking time away from work isn’t. Exact figures are tough to come by, but “off-ramping,” or voluntarily taking leave, has become more common in many rich countries. Every month, 273,000 women and 13,000 men take maternity or paternity leave in the United States. And there are plenty of other reasons why someone might leave their work for an extended amount of time: a serious illness, the death of a close family member, or even burnout, which affects up to two thirds of US workers

Not everyone can afford to, or wants to, take time off work. But as some workplaces become more flexible about their policies for everything from parental leave to mental health breaks and sabbaticals, the number of workers off-ramping—and the challenge of managing their return—is growing. People who have gone through these kinds of experiences may come back to feel and act differently. They may feel stressed, isolated, and depressed, all of which can impact people’s ability to function at work.

Acensi-Ferré’s employer could have welcomed her back and offered her a new position better suited to her background. That wasn’t meant to be. But what happened next turned out, in a sense, even better: She started laying the foundation to become a leading advocate for professional resilience in France—poised to help a population of off-rampers just like her.

The business of resilience

For Acensi-Ferré, professional resilience is “how we transform a trauma … into an opportunity for performance.” And in 2015, she did just that, launching SynchroniCités, a consulting and coaching group that trains employees and employers on how to foster resilience in professional situations. 

Acensi-Ferré was able to bounce back from adversity on her own, and one goal of her organization is to give other individuals the tools to do the same. But increasingly, companies are seeing the value in supporting their employees’ transitions after a difficult or traumatic experience requires time away from work. As they struggle to retain or retrain returning employees—and bear the associated costs—businesses have turned to resilience consulting and coaching firms like Acensi-Ferré’s, which have proliferated in the past two decades.

“Resilience can absolutely be learned, and experience is the best teacher,” says Jessica Chivers, a psychologist and CEO of The Talent Keeper Specialists, a UK-based consulting and coaching firm that helps people returning to work after extended leave. 

Along with Chivers’ company, Acensi-Ferré is joined by Wisdom Labs, a company that focuses on the mental, emotional, and social well-being of workers, and She’s Back, a UK-based coaching group that focuses on women reentering the workplace. Acensi-Ferré has also launched Envie2Résilience, a group that advocates for professional resilience with employers and public officials. Every year, the groups give out a Professional Resilience Prize (link in French). 

These groups believe that coaching “makes a difference,” says Chivers. “Individuals having access to somebody… outside of their organization that they can strategize, plan, talk openly with, and use as a sounding board, can make all the difference between that person staying and working to reintegrate and thinking ‘I just can’t do this, I need to leave.’”  

And that, the coaches say, is good for business. “The faster you can get someone up to speed and working at full capacity, the more money you’re going to make out of them,” says Lisa Unwin, founder of She’s Back. They also argue that helping returning employees boosts companies’ bottom line, by keeping turnover and recruiting costs down. 

Arlette Pujar saw the value of resilience training for the officials she trains at the National Center for Territorial Public Service in Martinique (CNFPT), a French overseas territory. The center trains hundreds of public officials in all industries across the Caribbean island. Absenteeism, burnout, and turnover is very high, says Pujar.

“Despite our idyllic environment—the sun, the sea, the coconut trees—many territorial officials are suffering,” she explains. Income inequality is high and many officials earn less than minimum wage. The island is plagued by air pollution and contaminated waters, and there are deep-seated issues tied to its history of racism and oppression. “We are descendants of slaves,” says Pujar. “Today, we suffer the consequences and sequelae.” 

Acensi-Ferré spoke to agents of the CNFPT about resilience in June. She gathered small groups of officials who had recently returned to work or been away for a long time for personal or medical reasons, and encouraged them to share their stories with their colleagues. One woman spoke about how her burnout kept her indoors for the better part of two years, too traumatized to go to the office to hand in her medical leave papers. A former public hospital employee talked about losing his leg in a car accident and the difficulties he experienced returning to work. “There was a lot of crying, because every situation felt like a mirror to the officials present,” says Pujar.

With Acensi-Ferré’s help, CNFPT was able to encourage employees to support one another. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pujar marshaled a group of officials, some of whom had had cancer themselves and others who simply wanted to show their support, to take part in the “yole ronde,” a special maritime race that is traditional in Martinique, where each person in the boat has a very particular job that keeps it afloat. The goal is to use a tradition employees are familiar with as a tool to increase their confidence, says Pujar.

Since then, things have changed for the better. The CNFPT set up programs to improve reentry for officials after a long absence, and it plans to redo the resilience seminar with Acensi-Ferré. 

“It has been a great achievement for us,” Pujar says of the resilience training. “Beyond the number of participants, I believe fundamentally that it has been a game-changer, and even HR directors who were present have realized the importance of taking into consideration the reentry of employees.” 

Professional means personal

Whether or not training affects the bottom line, workers and employers have plenty of reason to want to foster resilience. “A lot of people are suffering right now, in the workplace especially,” says Cory Smith, the co-founder and CEO of Wisdom Labs. He founded the company with the explicit goal of protecting employees from depression, isolation, stress, and burnout. 

Smith knows a thing or two about those issues. In 1997, while working for the UNESCO World Heritage Center, he survived a suicide bombing in Ben-Yehuda Square in Jerusalem. He returned to the US and immediately founded a company, not realizing that he was suffering from symptoms of PTSD. He eventually burned out, which forced him to reexamine his career and life choices. “How do we provide something that allows people to not have to go through this alone and suffer so much?” he asks.

Smith’s answer was to co-found a company that uses the science of what we know about the brain to help workers develop the skills of resilience: setting goals and acting on them, taking risks, and practicing mindfulness and an attitude of gratefulness. Practices like guided breathing, meditation, and exercise can help.

Companies that turn to Wisdom Labs hope to equip their employees with these skills for self-awareness and self-regulation. Similarly, for Chivers’ clients, the first step in the process is often “a strengths diagnostic tool,” she says, which helps individuals find out how their skills can help them navigate their transition. “Strengths-focused conversations reconnect individuals with a sense of capability, credibility, and ‘can-do,’” she writes in an email. 

But there’s only so much an employee can do for themselves. Professional resilience has to be built into an organization itself. So another important element is to highlight the resources an individual has in their workplace, says Smith, including social connections and support. Studies show that people with close and supportive relationships are often more resilient to external stressors. But “people can feel quite isolated” when they return to work, says Unwin. “You don’t have to be out long to feel as though you’ve lost some of your social networks.” 

For employers, then, resilience can be fostered by encouraging connections and community in the workplace. That can mean group activities, trainings, or mentorship programs—anything that makes it comfortable for colleagues to share with each other and ask for help. 

It’s also important for employers to help off-ramped employees maintain ties while they’re gone. “There’s a lot of things you can do during your time off to keep in touch with people,” says Unwin.  In the UK, employees can work up to 10 days, called “Keep In Touch” Days, while on leave and still keep their benefits. Companies can support their employees’ attempts to ease back into the workplace by organizing Keep In Touch Days and making sure their HR departments are on hand to support employees on those days.

Employers should also make sure, as Chivers says, that return employees are “sufficiently stretched but not stressed.” Being busy is good, but not being overwhelmed. The very worst thing that could happen is for an employee to show up on her first day, and for no one to be expecting her, or for her computer not to be set up, or for her to have nothing to do. “It’s really soul-destroying,” says Unwin. “And that happens a lot.”

When work isn’t everything

Acensi-Ferré did what she hopes her clients won’t do after an extended period of leave—she left. But she believes time away can be an opportunity for people to ask themselves important questions about their career goals, the big one being, do I really want to come back after this is all over? 

“What I advocate for in my work,” Acensi-Ferré says, “is either a reunion, when possible and desirable for the parties involved, or a divorce by mutual consent.” 

“Sometimes our coaching work is about helping people to ‘leave well’ with reputation and relationships intact, once they’ve decided that staying isn’t an attractive option,” writes Chivers in an email. “That isn’t a failure of resilience, it’s the very opposite: It’s realizing there are options and choices and they don’t have to stay in an unhappy situation.”

When employees choose not to return to work, or return for a little while and then quit, Smith views it as an opportunity for their former employer to “examine which resources (time, money, technology, support etc.) were missing or which demands were out of balance. Would coaching or training have helped them cope? Or does there need to be a systems change of some kind that optimizes workflows and demands that are in line with employee wellbeing?”

The field of professional resilience is just a few decades old, but according to Acensi-Ferré, most companies still don’t invest time or resources into thinking about ways in which they can ease an employee’s reentry into the workplace. Her company has only brought in about €50,000 this year in individual and company coaching fees. “There are brave people and brave companies who dare to take an interest in these issues. Unfortunately, for the majority of them at the moment, there is instead a tendency to … wait for the situation to resolve itself.” 

Still, applying the lessons she has learned in her work, she is sticking behind her project of building the practice of resilience in France’s professional settings. “My utopia,” Acensi-Ferré said in a speech earlier this year (French), “is convincing companies that resilience is a virtue that will determine their performance.”