6 simple steps to support return to work following mental health-related sickness absence

An article by Dr. Joanna Yarker and Rebecca Peters

Did you know that…

  • mental ill-health is one of the most common reasons of short and long-term sickness absence, affecting one in six employees;
  • up to 20% of returning employees experiencing relapse or subsequently leaving work;
  • but that the way an employee is treated during their absence and their initial return has a major impact on their likelihood of returning to and staying in work?

As a manager, you have a pivotal role in supporting an employee back to work. Early and effective intervention is vital to support employees to get back to work and help them stay at work. Many managers feel unsure of what to do or what to say when someone takes time off work, and it is commonplace to hear people say, “I don’t want to make things worse.” Talking about mental health can be tough, so we often say nothing.

Six important steps to support someone back to work:

1. Communicate early – ask the employee how they are
This may seem common sense, but it is surprising how rarely this is done. Early communication often focuses on sharing sickness absence policies or asking when employees are going to return. Keeping communication focused on the employee and encouraging them to take the steps that they need to get better will help the employee feel appreciated and give them permission to do things that can help them recover, like going for lunch or keeping connected with friends.

2. Reflect – Do you have the skills and knowledge to support someone’s return?
There are many pressures on a managers’ time and balancing the needs of the returning employee with the rest of the team can be a challenge. Are you able to bring the team together? Can you lead open conversations about the way work is designed and managed? Can you identify areas where you might need support – for you, for the returning employee, for your team?

3. Maintain communication throughout their absence
We all know work is busy. Days and weeks fly by when we are at work. But no