How to support an employee returning to work after mental health leave

Supporting an employee returning from mental health leave

With this week marking Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re casting our minds to mental wellbeing in the workplace. Anxiety is the focus for this year’s awareness drive, but there are lots of reasons why someone might need to take mental health leave from work – including stress and depression. If this applies to someone at your company, follow these steps to ease them back into working life when the time is right for them.

1. Make sure they’re ready

First thing’s first: make sure the employee feels well enough to return to work. Allowing them to start working again before they’re truly ready will only hinder any progress they’ve made, and it won’t be beneficial for either of you.

If they’ve been off work for an extended period of time, it's worth the employee checking in with their doctor to get a professional opinion on their wellbeing, they may also want to involve you in the discussion.

It’s also a good idea to ask the person returning if they’d like to come into work for a day or a quick visit before their official return. This can help to familiarise them with the environment and their old colleagues so it’s not such a dramatic change of pace on their first day back. And don’t forget to fill them in on anything that’s happened since they’ve been gone. For example, let them know about any new joiners to their team and upcoming plans and projects so they know what to expect. 

2. Think about making adjustments

Once you’ve established that they’re ready to rejoin work, consider making some adjustments to ease the transition. Here are some ‘reasonable adjustments’ you might want to implement – for example, if the person in question has social anxiety, you could give them their own allocated desk rather than forcing them to hot-desk. You might also want to meet them at the entrance on their first day back, to make the return less intimidating.

If a full-time return to work is likely to be overwhelming for the employee, why not allow a phased return? They could start off working flexible or part-time hours, or it might be worth offering a different or reduced set of duties to start with – particularly if the person’s job was especially stressful or hectic.

Depending on how long they’ve been on leave, they might feel out of touch with colleagues and friends at work which could make them feel awkward about returning. This could be the case if the team has grown rapidly in the time they’ve been gone, for example. If so, how about organising a buddy system? Ask someone willing and trustworthy to be available to answer any questions they might have, and simply to be a friendly face to talk to.

Remember to make senior leaders and anyone in their direct team aware of the situation before the person returns to work. There’s no need to share personal or in-depth information about their struggles, but a high-level overview can help to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

Anyone returning to work after mental health leave might also be eligible for support through Access to Work. Check the eligibility requirements to see if they could get financial or practical support – it could really make a difference.

3. Schedule regular catch-ups

It’s really important to have a 3 - 6 month plan in place once the employee returns, to make sure they’re settling in and adapting back to working life. You could create a personalised Wellness Action Plan (WAP), to help the individual identify what keeps them well at work, the triggers that make them unwell, and how to address a mental health problem at work. 

During these first few months, arrange a weekly check-in with them. Ask if they’re coping and if there’s anything extra you can do. Encourage the person to be as honest as possible during these conversations, as it’ll make it easier for you to help. You could also ask for feedback on how the company has dealt with the situation, if they feel comfortable giving their thoughts. It’s useful to know so you’re better equipped to help anyone taking mental health leave going forward.

If the employee has had a phased return to work, after a few months you can ask if they’re ready to resume their normal working patterns (only if this feels like an appropriate time to do so, of course).

4. Encourage open conversation

Anyone returning from a prolonged period of leave for mental health reasons might be reluctant to discuss this with colleagues and peers. The problem is, this stigma only serves to exacerbate the problem. Apparently, 91% of Brits believe that people with mental health conditions are treated differently. But with 1 in 4 of us experiencing poor mental health at some point in our lives, it’s surprising that it’s not more widely spoken about.

One of the ways you can relieve any shame or embarrassment someone might be feeling is to start destigmatising mental wellbeing in the workplace. If any senior leaders or managers have struggled with mental health, open up the floor to them to speak frankly about their challenges. This is a great way to set an example for more junior members of the team who might not want to push the boundaries. 

You could also ask people to be more intentional with the language they use around mental wellbeing. It might sound obvious, but avoid using terms like “crazy” or “mental” to describe others, and try not to refer to anyone or anything as “normal”, as this reinforces the tendency to put people in buckets.

5. Promote wellbeing at work

Looking after your employees’ wellbeing is the best way to make sure they’re happy, healthy and able to do their jobs. Taking a few small steps to support your staff’s mental health can improve productivity and profitability, reduce sick leave and boost retention, so it’s a no brainer.

But how can you do this? One idea is to offer tools for both physical and mental wellbeing, as they’re very closely connected. Why not offer subsidised gym memberships and therapy as part of your employee benefits package? Lots of companies these days are offering mental health days, allowing employees to take a day each month to rest, have fun or do whatever keeps their mind healthy. Only 1 in 10 of us admit to being honest about needing a mental health day, so making it an option for everyone helps to reduce the stigma.

Promoting a healthy workforce also comes down to knowing when someone’s not in a good place mentally. One of the ways to do this is to provide training for managers and senior leaders to help them spot signs of mental health issues so they can step in and take action. These might include social withdrawal from colleagues, lack of engagement or increased confrontation with peers.

You might also want to signpost staff towards this list of contacts for mental health at work. Not everyone will want to open up about their struggles with their manager, so providing a list of resources can help them confide in someone more objective.

These are just a few of the ways you can help someone returning to work after mental health leave. The best thing you can do is ask them what they need and let them know they have your support. Hopefully, by creating a non-judgmental environment, your employees will have the right tools to manage their wellbeing and feel comfortable asking for the help they need.

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