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 not when you are at home struggling with your mental health. Maintaining contact throughout sickness absence has been found to improve the employees’ likelihood of returning to work. Not only can it can help the employee feel valued but staying connected can help to reduce the anxiety felt as the return to work date approaches. Agree in principle when and how you will communicate so that both you and the employee know what to expect.

4. Preparing for return to work
It is all too often the case that people return to work and take on their full work load on the first day. Some people feel ready to resume responsibilities straight away where as others may take days, weeks or sometimes months. Returns work best when employees and managers work together to develop a plan for returning. While you may not be able to anticipate what type of support or adjustment to work the employee may need, it can be helpful to consider how their role could be adjusted if need be. It is also important to think through what the first days might look like. Returning employees are often nervous about coming back to work so providing a plan and asking them to think ahead of their first week can help them feel in control of their return.

5. Return to work conversation
Arranging a return to work conversation or meeting can be a useful starting point for the employee and manager to make a plan for the first few weeks. Employees sometimes find it helpful to have an advocate or friend present to ensure that they take everything in, and managers can find it helpful to have a set of prompts to make sure all of the important questions are covered. Consider where (somewhere quiet, free of interruptions) and when (let them settle back in first) to meet and let the employee know in advance so it is not sprung on them.

6. Keeping healthy and productive at work
Maintaining an ongoing conversation about work and wellbeing is important – not only for the returning employee but for all employees. Wellness Recovery Action Plans can be helpful for everyone; and regular team consultations about the way the team is working will help employees stay healthy and productive at work.

Return to work toolkit

Drawing from the latest academic research, an expert panel of experts in Human Resources, Occupational Health, Mental Health, Employment law; managers and employees who have taken sickness absence due to mental ill-health, a team of researchers at Kingston University, Loughborough University and Affinity Health at Work have developed a free-to-access toolkit to help employees and employers navigate the return to work process following a mental health sickness absence.

The toolkit provides guidance, templates, checklists and resources for employees and employers. The team are looking for managers and employees to use the toolkit and let us know what works and how the toolkit is being used. To trial the return to work toolkit please contact Rebecca on [email protected]