How to Spot the Signs When Your Returner is Struggling

The decision to start a new job usually involves lots of thought, consideration, discussion, hard work and upheaval. Whilst you hope every transition is a smooth one some people can have a ‘bumpier’ experience than others. There may be times in the early months where your new joiner feels overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and demotivated.

As their manager you will want to help them get through the more difficult days or weeks, that is, if you realise how they are feeling. Some new joiners are worried about admitting they are struggling and may feel that seeking help in these situations carries the stigma of weakness, incompetence, or a lack of commitment. They may be covering up and disguising their problems. They may also be finding it hard to admit to themselves. But ignoring these feelings and just ‘pushing on’ can be hugely draining for them and can lead to greater problems.

Early signs that people might be struggling can be subtle. The common symptoms below may help you and, If you think you have spotted them, give you the opportunity to have an open, honest, and supportive discussion.

5 Common Symptoms:


They may start to be less visible in their actions – they may be noticeably quieter in meetings or cancel meetings entirely. They might seem detached when you have regular catchups or self-sabotage by not preparing for these meetings.

They may take time off without explaining their reason, perhaps not want to engage with you, put you off, and if you do meet, avoid eye contact.

What Can You Do?

Talk to them often and ask, ‘how are you?’… ‘No REALLY, how are you?’

Show a genuine and personal interest in how they are managing their lives. Ask often about balancing all the pressures. Make your catch-ups frequent and regular, start with sincere questions and listen carefully for the sentiment behind the words in their replies.

What are they not saying? You might mention something you observed in a meeting, such as “I noticed you didn’t say anything when we were discussing x, where you’ve normally got strong views. I’m not sure how to interpret this. Can you help me?”

Normalise conversations about balancing life; parents need to know you understand the pressures and need more validation. Non-parents will have other factors affecting them. Do you know what is on the mind of each of your team members? Have you asked often enough about this and considered what you could do to help?


Lack of Focus

Notice if they become distracted or confused; the signs of this can be elusive and may come and go. Have you noticed more memory lapses or someone prioritising seemingly unimportant tasks?

Maybe they are preoccupied with challenges outside work, leaving them drained of energy and tending to focus on the urgent reactive tasks such as writing lots of emails while letting important deadlines that require time and thought slip.

What Can You Do?

A sense of purpose is a hugely crucial factor in motivation; this is that feeling of ‘knowing why I am here’, and it is essential to someone who is newly returned. Seeing focused progress towards the desired goal gives us a sense of mastery and achievement.

Clarity about what success looks like in their role is likely to be a helpful discussion for you to start. You might start with the big picture, help them think about what they enjoy, what their strengths are, what they’d be proud to have achieved.

You may need to help them revisit this often to help them remain focused on playing to their strengths and applying those to the most critical outcomes. Confidence will return as they feel more validated by their success.


Changes in Behaviour or Attitudes

You may notice more emotion, impatience, or less tolerance towards others. Managing our behaviour when under stress takes energy, a lot of energy. It’s easier to snap back at a perceived provocation than to step back and be curious about your irritation before responding.

What Can You Do?

Slight changes in behaviour can creep in and the less helpful of these need spotting and calling out. But how can you do this in a way that is received positively?

Looking to address the genuine issues behind the changes rather than tackling the behaviours head-on can be more effective. First, think about your part in this. Have you added to pressures? What can you do that might help?

Talk to the issue behind the behaviour as you can perceive it. For example, you don’t seem yourself, would you like to talk? How can I help? Who else can help?



Some new joiners may try to alleviate the fear of ‘am I good enough’ by working longer hours. This type of working pattern or unusual hours is not sustainable and generally doesn’t make them better at their job.

What Can You Do?

Behind the over-working often lurks deep insecurity about not feeling valued, fear of failure, self-doubt about their contribution. These can trigger heightened perfectionism, causing more overworking.

You’ll know there’s no point in telling them to work less, as that may reinforce the message that you don’t rate them or that they’re somehow slower, less effective than before. They need reassurance, not criticism.

Perhaps you can help more with visibility and advocacy, so your team and its members feel recognised and that their career is on track, reducing anxiety levels.



Martin Seligman famously coined the term ‘learned helplessness’ and demonstrated the damage physically and mentally it causes.

In the face of uncertainty about the future or uncontrollable, seemingly inescapable stress, some people protect themselves by stopping trying & giving up. “If I haven’t tried, I can’t have failed.”

You may start to hear reasons for not taking action, not taking control, victim type behaviour. Learned helplessness can stem from not feeling ‘good enough’ at anything and at the same time feeling guilty about letting you and the team down.

They may be unusually riddled with self-doubt, procrastinating over simple tasks, or struggling to ask for help while also not achieving things that they would have found straightforward in the past.

What Can You Do?

Learned optimism is the opposite of learned helplessness. Optimists live longer, healthier, happier lives than hopeless pessimists who perceive many things as threats.

If your new joiner is feeling stuck, doubtful or scared, they may also become hypersensitive to threats, which fuels their helplessness. They need help to engage their hope circuit, which stimulates us to believe we can control and harness uncertainty.

Hope and optimism are infectious, and you will want to spread this throughout your team. Be curious and forward-thinking. People may need help to think about possible pathways and what alternatives they have for when things don’t go to plan. You might do work with the team to build a sense of mission together and inject more of your and the team optimism into individuals.


The Impact of Hybrid and Remote Working

When we’re physically together for several hours a day, the symptoms of possible struggles can be easier to spot in your team members. If someone’s more withdrawn or distracted, you can see the slight shifts in behaviour that could be early indicators of issues. It is more complicated to spot the signs when you or they are remote, but it is still possible.

Deep listening is crucial – suspend judgement and just listen. What emotions are you picking up behind the words? What else?

Empathy has become recognised as a superpower for leaders and key to helping people feel understood and validated. Empathy will show your compassion and genuine concern for everyone on your team. It is a skill, and you can learn it; it starts with curiosity about how someone else may be feeling, listening to what someone’s not saying.

Don’t forget yourself amongst all of this – now it’s your turn to be asked: ‘How Are You? No, REALLY, How Are You?

You know you need to put on your oxygen mask first; you can’t pour from an empty vessel. If your resilience is low or you’re exhausted, you will need to have the resources to help others regain belief in their abilities and the optimism needed to overcome obstacles.

You are a human being who may have suffered from feeling like this yourself, now or in the past. Showing some vulnerability, along with hope and optimism, can help get more openness about how we’re all doing.