"There are dozens of definitions for burnout," says Eva Geluk. "However, there is consensus that it is predominantly a work-related condition. The private situation can have an impact, as an additional source of stress, but can also serve as a buffer." Eva is a senior researcher at Antwerp Management School and collaborated on the study on reintegration after burnout.

“This type of study was much needed," explains Bart Teuwen, absenteeism expert at Mensura. “Burnout rates just keep rising,” says Eva “And, our own research shows that almost a quarter relapse after the reintegration period,” she adds. "And as many as half are worried about a relapse."

About the study

The three-year research project “Co-crafting for a successful return to work after burnout” at Antwerp Management School (AMS) started in 2020 and focused on a number of real-life case studies of return to work after a long-term absence due to burnout. Based on the experiences of reintegrated employees and their managers, the researchers developed, tested and validated a new intervention approach. The study was framed within an ESF innovation project, with Mensura and the Association of Recognised Stress and Burnout Coaches (Vereniging van Erkende Stress- en Burn-outcoaches) as partners.

Safe environment increases success rate of reintegration

Where do things go wrong when returning to work after burnout?

Bart: “There tends to be negative emotions with respect to reintegration. Moreover, the return-to-work pathways are too focused on limiting working time. The AMS research shows that we should move away from this 'de-skilling' policy and shift the focus to new growth opportunities through job-crafting."

Eva: "There are various levers to increase the success rate of a reintegration process. Focusing on opportunities rather than limitations is certainly one of them. But lines of communication must also be kept open during the period of absence, as the reintegration process starts in this phase. It is also very important for both employer and employee to clearly express their expectations. A psychologically safe environment is indispensable for this."

Geluk Eva

“It is very important for both employer and employee to clearly express their expectations. A psychologically safe environment is indispensable for this."


Reintegration facilitator initiates dialogue

This is where the role of the neutral mediator or reintegration facilitator comes in.

Bart: “That’s right, in the study we tested the role of the reintegration facilitator and the added value was abundantly clear. As a neutral lynchpin, he or she creates the safe context for dialogue between all stakeholders. After all, managers, colleagues and HR are usually very understanding but problems, expectations and sometimes preconceptions often remain unspoken."

Eva: "Identifying exactly where things went wrong is crucial so you know which levers to adjust. The gradual resumption of work is part of recovery process. Yet the key to sustainable reintegration lies not in lower workloads, but in so-called resources. More specifically, this means better support from the manager and close colleagues, prevention measures at the organisational level and so on."

Leading the reintegration process requires expertise

The neutral facilitator is the hub of individual reintegration projects. Does he or she also refer back to the collective reintegration policy and absence prevention?

Bart: “Absolutely. Embedding the insights from each individual reintegration process in your policy effectively squares the circle. That’s exactly how you avoid certain problem situations recurring. The facilitator is trained to take on that role and advise the internal prevention department or HR accordingly."

Eva: "Belgium is a country full of SMEs. And smaller organisations cannot be expected to have the necessary expertise to lead a reintegration process and then adjust policy. Not to mention the time it takes. If you need it, you should be able to access and utilise that know-how and extra capacity."

AMS has used the research to develop a masterclass. It teaches future reintegration facilitators how to better match work resumption after burnout with the employee's needs and the employer's capabilities.

Foto Bart

“Embedding the insights from each individual reintegration process in your policy effectively squares the circle.”


Successful reintegration can also involve another employer

During the study, you tested the facilitator role in reintegration after burnout. Does the approach also apply to other reintegration pathways?

Eva: "Yes, because after every long period of absence, employees often struggle to define what they can still do and what they can’t. It is, therefore, important to focus on capabilities rather than limitations and to raise awareness among the team about their colleague's return. So neutral guidance offers added value in any reintegration process."

Finally, what if the reintegration process shows that employer and employee cannot reengage?

Bart: "Sometimes you find the limits of what is possible in terms of adjustments to the work situation. In my experience, many employers then consider the reintegration to have failed, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is good employment practice to let your employee regain control of their professional and private situation, but sometimes that is not possible in your organisation. In this context, a successful continuation of their career at another company is also a positive outcome. Indeed, you can take an active role in this process as the current employer."

Eva: "One of the cases from our research is a textbook example of this. Together with the reintegration facilitator, the employer and employee soon came to the conclusion that they could no longer get along. At that point, they sought a constructive solution together. The employee then completed training before joining another employer. Thus, they avoided the gruelling process of restart and relapse - which is fantastic."