Read about our pioneering study with South Tees NHS Foundation Trust here.

Resuming Routine: Strategies for a Stress-Free Return to Work after Surgery

Surgery Hero
April 26, 2024

This article has been a collaboration between Surgery Hero and Luminate, written by Charlote Housden and Poppy Millett.

In honour of Stress Awareness Month, Surgery Hero have collaborated with Luminate, a mental health consultancy that works with businesses to create happier, healthier workplace cultures. Just like Surgery Hero, Luminate’s mission is to meaningfully improve the wellbeing of workforces – providing employees with support where needed and empowering them to support themselves where possible.  

Some happy consequences of ensuring that employees feel supported by their workplaces are reduced stress levels, increased engagement, improved productivity and, when specifically thinking about surgery, shorter recovery times. 

Our collaboration with Luminate aims to combine our knowledge on surgery, stress and workplace wellbeing. Keep reading as we explore some effective stress management techniques and provide insights on transitioning back to work after surgery.

Why is surgery so anxiety-inducing?

Feeling worried and anxious about surgery is completely normal. It’s a big life event with many unknowns! Charlotte, health coach at Surgery Hero, explains that many patients referred to her awaiting surgery often have a fear of the unknown outcomes and lack of control in the situation:

Many patients often communicate that they are worried about the procedure itself, prospect of anaesthesia, and potential complications in the postoperative phase. Surgery often disrupts daily routines and independence, leading to feelings of vulnerability and loss of control.

Additionally, the physical discomfort or pain associated with both the surgery itself and the recovery period can exacerbate stress levels. 

Post-surgery, individuals may worry with concerns about their health, the effectiveness of the procedure, and the duration of the recovery process. Beyond the physical aspect, there are often practical considerations such as arranging time off work, managing finances, and coordinating caregiving responsibilities, which can add another layer of stress. 

Overall, the combination of these factors can make the surgical experience inherently stressful, requiring a supportive environment and coping strategies to navigate successfully.

The Impact of Stress on Post-Surgery Healing

Chronic stress can negatively impact the process of surgery recovery, affecting both physical healing and mental wellbeing. When the body is under stress, it triggers the release of hormones like cortisol, which can interfere with the body's ability to heal wounds and fight off infections. 

Moreover, stress can weaken the immune system, making patients more susceptible to postoperative infections. In patients with high levels of stress, they may also be more susceptible to anxiety and low mood, and we may also see a lack of motivation to follow post operative guidance and physiotherapy following this, which can also hinder progress in recovery.

With this in mind, it's essential for us to consider how we can manage stress before, during, and after surgical procedures to ensure a successful recovery and smooth return to the workplace. 

Top tips for managing stress before/after surgery

Drawing on Luminate’s expertise, we’ve pulled together some top tips to help you process stress and soothe your sympathetic nervous system – enabling you to offer yourself some support pre- and post-surgery.

Identify your stress signature | Pre-surgery

Part of managing stress effectively is being able to identify when we're stressed. This, however, can be a little harder than it sounds.

A clear indication will come from our physical bodies (i.e. we might begin to experience frequent headaches, ongoing tiredness or a lack of energy, skin conditions, digestive problems, loss of appetite, etc*), as well as behavioural signs (a lack of care over our appearance, forgetfulness, short-temperedness, weepiness, etc). How stress manifests itself is different for everybody.

These changes are called your ‘stress signature’ and are signs that it’s time to slow down and employ a stress management tool.

Take some time to think of 3 to 4 physical/behavioural signs that indicate you're stressed (we find that writing this down helps) to be on the lookout for during your surgery journey and beyond. 

*Some physical symptoms may be related to/mistaken for the reason(s) for your surgery, so – when trying to identify your stress signature – we encourage you to reflect on times prior/notice if any ongoing symptoms are exacerbated during a period of stress.

Prioritise rest | Pre- and post-surgery

When your body or brain needs rest, listen to it. (Outside of experiencing dips in energy, you can use your stress signature to identify when you require rest too.)

This could look like taking regular 15-minute breaks, as needed, throughout the working day or skipping after-work drinks when low in energy and/or feeling stressed out. Essentially, what we’re talking about is putting your wellbeing first and prioritising rest. And by rest we mean anything from sitting or lying down in a calm space to taking a nap or gently getting on with a creative hobby – whatever it is that provides you with a sense of refreshment.

This may seem odd within the context of work but ignoring these signals and ‘pushing through’ will make you less productive, more stressed, and, over time, will result in increased presenteeism, sickness and absence on your part. 

On the other (and if you’re asking us, better) hand, working with the natural ebb and flow of your energy improves wellbeing, reduces stress, helps us avoid fatigue (as far as possible when we are unwell or recovering from surgery), manage our energy levels, and makes us more engaged and effective when we are feeling more energized.

Talk to someone | Pre- and post-surgery 

It is perfectly natural to feel anxious before surgery and/or during the recovery process. Feelings that the body processes as stress i.e. as an activated sympathetic nervous system.

Talking to someone about what you’re experiencing can help you process some of these difficult or distressing thoughts and feelings. 

Simply getting some of this stuff out of our heads and knowing that someone’s there for us can be extremely powerful in releasing some of that stress, anxiety, facing a lack of motivation or low mood.

You can speak with a trusted friend, family member, partner, an MHFAider at work, a Surgery Hero coach, a counsellor (some workplaces have a couselling provision - we would recommend checking with your own), or a charity helpline. All options that are available for free or that can be found at a low cost.

We understand that it can feel daunting to talk to someone – to make yourself vulnerable or to worry that you’d be putting upon others – but we can write with almost 100% certainty that the person you choose to speak to would much rather support you (they probably actively want to support you) than you suffer in silence. 

Gentle movement | Pre- and Post-surgery

Though limited to whatever extent by surgery, movement is a reliable way to release some stress. Exercise gives us a boost of happiness hormones (endorphins can even help minimise, albeit temporarily, our experience of pain), allows us to rid ourselves of some cortisol (the stress hormone) through our sweat and speeding up our metabolism, and can be great for physical rehabilitation too.

Move in whatever way you most enjoy, in whatever way you feel able – big or small – approx. 3 times a week to keep on top of your stress levels. It is vitally important, however, to check in with a medical professional about what is possible and appropriate in regards to movement at each given stage of your pre-/post-surgery journey.

Guidance on returning to work and continuing to manage stress 

Returning to work after time off can feel daunting at any time, but post-surgery this transition will likely be more challenging and/or stressful than usual. So, here are a few considerations we’d like you to make in managing that return – and managing work moving forward – in a way that minimises stress. 

First off, it’s important to return to work only when you’re ready and to get medical guidance on when this might be. To set expectations, 4 weeks post-surgery is average according to the Royal College of Surgeons.

Slightly ahead of returning or as soon as you return to work, speak to your manager about making reasonable adjustments. Reasonable adjustments are changes an employer makes to remove or reduce a disadvantage related to someone’s disability. Examples could include your workplace offering some flexibility in working hours, moving your workstation to the ground floor (to avoid stairs) or redistributing some minor duties that you may find difficult as a result of your surgery.

If your medical condition falls under the Equality Act 2010, your employer has a legal obligation to make (as far as possible) reasonable adjustments.

Another measure to help you manage workplace stress post-surgery (and more generally too) could be setting some healthy boundaries.

Boundaries are the metaphorical lines that define the limits of what is acceptable to us when we’re interacting with or making commitments to others. In a workplace, our boundaries dictate how much of our time, energy, and emotional availability we give to both the people at work and the work itself.

An example of a boundary could be not to read or respond to emails between the hours of 6pm - 9am and/or taking your full hour lunch break 4 out of 5 days a week. 

Firm, healthy boundaries are essential for work-life balance: ensuring that work and its accompanying stresses don’t spill over into our personal lives, helping us stay well, allowing time to rest, and to nurture the other, more nourishing, areas of our lives.

Finally, we want to speak about a certain tool that can help with both stress management and managing pain post-surgery: mindfulness

The idea of mindfulness might feel intimidating for some, but it really shouldn't be. Mindfulness is simply the practice of bringing our attention to the present moment... and keeping it there - gently re-focussing whenever we find our thoughts have gone astray.

Neuroscientists and psychologists agree on its wide-ranging benefits, including improving our immune health and ability to emotionally regulate. Which, in turn, helps us manage stress and build resilience. But, like most things, regular practice is required to see these benefits.

You can access guided meditations easily and for free on YouTube and across a number of apps, so why not try committing to a daily practice for a limited time (it can be for as little as 2 minutes) and seeing what works for you. 

In sum: acknowledging that stress is a natural part of the journey and arming yourself with some stress management techniques is crucial for optimising recovery and easing your post-surgery transition back to work. 

We hope that these techniques will continue to help you build resilience, reduce anxiety, and cultivate a healthier work-life balance beyond this period - something that both Surgery Hero and Luminate are passionate about.

If your organisation is looking for support with employee wellbeing, get in touch with Luminate. Luminate provide a wide range of training and support to your staff across all levels – from stress management workshops to one-on-one counselling for employees, mental health awareness training for people managers and more.

Unlock the rest of this article

Fill out the form below to unlock the rest of this content.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.