How to help employees return to work following mental illness

Returning to work after a period of mental illness is tough but as an employer, you can help. Unum's Liz Walker explains more.

Returning to work after time away can be challenging, even if it’s only been a short break.

For those who’ve taken time off with mental illness, heading back to work can be even more daunting. On top of concerns relating to workload, worries over potential stigma can be enough to trigger more negative feelings.

However, there are plenty of ways employers can help staff ease back into their routine, as well as promote open conversations about mental health, to encourage other struggling employees to prioritise their emotional wellbeing.

Still an asset

Although time out of work can allow people to focus on their recovery, it can also sometimes have a negative impact on their sense of identity. This is because working gives many a sense of purpose and routine.

It can be beneficial for both the employee and the business to maintain regular contact during recovery. If they’re comfortable with checking in by phone or a catch-up coffee, that can demonstrate they’re an asset to the company and their wellbeing is valued. It also keeps them up-to-date with company news to help ease their return when they’re ready.

Creating an open and supportive workplace culture for those battling mental health problems may help to remove the stigma, which can reap huge benefits for the company.

“It can be beneficial to maintain regular contact during recovery”

This is where people who’ve experienced mental illness can also play an important role during their return to your business. These individuals often provide a different perspective on company policies, which can help to create a balanced and fair workplace. They may also be more likely to notice early signs of others suffering, which could help you intervene earlier.

Here to help

Mental health challenges come in many forms and while mental health first aid training can be really useful for managers, so can taking steps to relieve day-to-day stress for employees. This may include offering more flexible working hours to help accommodate better work-life balance or to ease the commute to and from work.

Also, being transparent on expectations so employees are clear on their responsibilities can help. Employees should feel able to say if any of their targets seem unfair or unachievable, and feel supported in finding resolutions to tasks or situations they are finding difficult while settling back in.

Flexibility is key

Employees taking time out to deal with mental health issues may not be ready to dive back into a full work schedule straight away. Immediately resuming full responsibilities and hours may prove too demanding and cause feelings of stress and anxiety.

Consider how returning staff can be eased back into their job to avoid them feeling overwhelmed. Discuss whether temporarily working flexible or part-time hours would be beneficial, increasing hours as and when they feel they can cope.

“Discuss whether temporarily working flexible or part-time hours would be beneficial”

Also think about the working environment, could returning employees feel isolated? If so, what can be done about this?

Early interventions

When it comes to mental ill health, the earlier symptoms are recognised and support is put in place, the better. Stress and depression can cause rumination – the constant repetition of and dwelling on negative thoughts – which can see mental health issues spiral.

Spotting the signs isn’t easy, but by creating an open culture you may be able to encourage people to speak more confidently about their problems. Even if they still don’t feel comfortable talking, by raising awareness across the office you can encourage employees to look out for each other.

An open culture can help your employees who are returning to work

It’s also important to signpost emotional support available in your workplace, such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs).

EAPs offer direct, confidential contact with experts who support individuals with a whole range of areas from family issues and financial worries to work-related problems, addiction and mental illness.

Liz Walker is HR Director at Unum UK.

L Walker

Liz Walker

Liz Walker is Director of Human Resources at Unum UK.

Related Topics

Mental health