When a co-worker returns from deployment with the National Guard or Reserve, a period of adjustment is normal. During the service member's absence, life moved on and things may have changed both at work and at home. While the service member is learning how to "fit in" again, you can lend a hand. Here are some ways to help a co-worker readjust at work after active military duty.
Understanding how returning employees feel
When service members return to their civilian jobs, they bring new skills and the ability to work in new ways and with new people. But they're often disoriented by how their old workplace has changed. There may be new staff to get to know. Co-workers may have taken on different responsibilities while they were gone. Temporary workers may have done their work and now have to leave. Returning service members may be asked to take on roles that are different from the old ones. It takes some time to adjust to the changes.
A service member returning to your workplace may be going through some emotional changes, too. It's important to keep in mind that your co-worker
- may have played a key role while deployed and now feels less important or has a hard time fitting back into old roles
- may have seen combat and have memories that will linger for some time to come; traumatic experiences may affect the ability to focus, concentrate at work, or complete certain tasks of daily living
- may experience "culture shock," a term referring to the jarring effect of transitioning quickly from one living environment to a dramatically different one. Some aspects of the workplace may be difficult to handle just now: telephones ringing, the noise of urban living, or the daily demands of customers or co-workers.
Needless to say, a co-worker back from deployment is likely to experience a roller coaster of emotions — happiness, sadness, confusion, and anticipation — sometimes all in one day. This is part of the adjustment period, and these feelings will become less intense over time.
What to say
It can be hard to know what to say to someone who has returned to work following active military duty. Here are some suggestions:
- Resist the urge to ask about combat situations, unless the person brings it up. The returnee may or may not want to talk about the experience of war. You might inquire about the person's experience by asking general questions like "What was the hardest part of your deployment?" or "What were the local people like where you were stationed?" Many returning service members may be uncomfortable talking about those experiences. If the returnee does not want to talk about the war experience, respect his or her wishes and avoid the topic.
- Remember that this is a transition time for the returnee. Chances are the returnee won't be able to jump back into work with the same focus or enthusiasm. Give him or her some time. You may hear complaints, or notice that the person seems distracted. You can acknowledge that this is happening by saying, "I bet it's hard to get back into the swing of things. If I can help, let me know."
- Share what's on your mind. Though the returnee may be preoccupied with his or her own adjustment, it's okay to share your thoughts and feelings about the person's return or about work in general. For example, you could talk about a change that took place in the person's absence and how it affected you. This gives you an opportunity to express your feelings, but also helps your co-worker understand why the change happened and its effect on the team, the product or service, or the organization as a whole.
Here are some things you can do to help a returning co-worker adjust to the workplace after military duty:
- Extend a simple welcome. Be brief but sincere. A signed card or a group lunch is a good way to say, "Welcome back."
- Have realistic expectations. Initially, your co-worker may not act like the person you remember, in large part because of the adjustment challenges. Be kind and patient.
- Help your co-worker understand the context in meetings. It's normal for everyone to be operating in the present, without remembering that the returnee doesn't know why certain things are happening as they are. Pause when necessary and provide some brief background to help the returnee better understand new changes.
- Be alert for signs that the returnee may be struggling. The signs include trouble sleeping or eating, difficulty concentrating, persistent fatigue, or frequent absences. If symptoms persist or seem to be worsening, offer support by saying, "This must be hard. You know there are resources for help available through Military OneSource. Do you have their number to call?" If you do not feel comfortable saying this, ask your manager to talk with the person.
You can help make the transition easier for a returning service member by keeping in mind that he or she is really adjusting to a lot of change at home and at work. After a while, life will return to normal for your co-worker, but remember that he or she is changed in fundamental ways by the experience of serving on active military duty.
Military OneSource 2012