Successful return to work involves a partnership between employers and employees. Keeping in touch with your employer, actively participating in your return-to-work program, effectively managing any ongoing health problems and liaising with your healthcare professionals will help to facilitate a successful return to work.

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Top 10 tips

Top 10 tips for returning employees

  1. Keep in touch with your employer when you are absent.
  2. Actively participate in your return-to-work program.
  3. Understand the value of work for health and recovery.
  4. Learn the symptoms and triggers of your mental health problem.
  5. Learn the effects of any medications you are taking and how these might impact on your work.
  6. Learn techniques for stress management.
  7. Discuss return to work with your healthcare professional.

Mental Health in the Workplace

What are mental health problems?

There are different ways of defining the term mental health. Some definitions emphasise positive psychological well-being whereas others see it as the absence of mental health problems.

For example, the World Health Organization has defined mental health as: “… a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Early warning signs of mental health problems at work

Watch this short film about recognising mental health problems in your employees:

Early warning signs that may show up at work in someone developing a mental health problem include*:

Early intervention for mental health problems

There is a wide range of interventions for treating mental health problems.

Early intervention programs target people with mental health problems and those who are just developing them. They aim to prevent problems from becoming more serious and reduce the likelihood of secondary effects such as loss of employment, school drop-out, relationship break-up and drug and alcohol problems.

Mental health training

Mental health training is key to building capacity and developing skills in managing those with mental health problems. Mental health training can help to:

Disclosing mental health problems at work

Should I tell my employer if I have a mental illness?

There is no one right answer to this question. The decision to disclose a mental health problem varies according to the employee's circumstances, the workplace culture and relationships with supervisors and colleagues. In some cases, people report that disclosure made their working lives more difficult, while others report that it enabled them to get the help and support they needed to work productively.

Confidentiality and privacy

Once an employee has disclosed their mental health problem, it is vital that you discuss and agree with them exactly who else, if anyone, might need to know, and what information they need to be provided with.

You should also make the employee aware that anything you discuss with them about their mental health problem will be kept confidential, unless there is an immediate danger to the person or to others in withholding that information.

What staff need to know

Increased awareness and skills training at the workplace, can help to reduce the severity, duration, and cost of mental health problems.The organisation should have procedures for making the all employees aware of the following:

Job stress and mental health problems

Stress is a normal part of daily life and can be positive or negative. It is a natural physical and mental response that is designed to help us cope effectively with challenging situations. It can be associated with work, family or personal relationships and usually means that something is happening that's causing worry and affecting how we are thinking and feeling. Signs of stress in the workplace can occur due to:

The value of work for health and recovery

A person does not have to be 100% well to return to work. Working has been shown to have a therapeutic affect upon mental illness, and can contribute to recovery.

In the great majority of cases, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

The benefits include:

Getting help for anxiety and depression

People with anxiety and depression often seek initial help from family and friends, who are an important source of support.

There are several different types of health professional who can provide help for anxiety and depression. They have different areas of expertise but General Practitioners (GPs) are the best starting point for someone seeking professional help.

General Practitioners

A good GP can provide the following:

Dealing with a mental health crisis at work

Mental health crises include:

  • suicidal behaviour or intention
  • panic attacks/extreme anxiety
  • psychotic episodes (loss of sense of reality, hallucinations, hearing voices)
  • other behaviour that seems out of control or irrational and that is likely to endanger yourself or others.

In a crisis, you should seek help, especially if you feel concerned about your safety or the safety of others in the workplace. The service you call first will depend on the type of crisis or emergency situation and when it occurs.

Psychological injury

Psychological injury is the main form of injury associated with work-related stress. The laws covering psychological vary according to which state you are in or whether you are an Australian government employee. Psychological injury claims are sometimes known as 'stress claims'.

Each jurisdiction has slightly different definitions of an injury and degree to which employment contributes to the injury for a claim to be accepted. For example, according to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (SRC) Act (which covers government employees), injury means:

Managing Absence

When to take sick leave for mental health problems

Deciding whether to remain at work after a diagnosis of depression or anxiety can be a difficult decision. In many cases, remaining at work can play a very important role in recovery by providing daily structure and routine, contributing to a sense of meaning and purpose, facilitating social support and maintaining financial security. The support given by supervisors and the organisation plays a key role in this.

Managing Return to Work

Overcoming barriers to return to work

The great majority of people who experience an episode of mental illness recover and have productive working lives. In some cases, such an episode can act as a trigger for a career or lifestyle change that benefits the person in the long term.

Employee responsibilities around return to work

Successful return to work involves a partnership between employers and employees. Your employer is likely to be trying to strike the right balance between supporting you and making sure the work gets done.

As an employee, your active participation in your return-to-work program will be critical to its success. Good communication with those involved in coordinating return to work is essential.

The return-to-work plan

A return-to-work plan is essential for ensuring a successful return to work. Ideally, a return-to-work plan for someone coming back after an episode of mental illness should address the interpersonal environment in a way similar to plans for return to work after physical injury that address the physical environment. This may mean making reasonable adjustments for particularly stressful tasks or interactions with colleagues or clients.

Identifying suitable duties

Involving employees in any decisions about such duties is critical to the success of return to work. While everyone's case is an individual one, you may want to use the following process to help identify suitable duties.

What to expect from your health practitioner

Your treating health practitioner plays a crucial role in managing your injury and illness and helping you return to work. You have the right to choose your treating health practitioner.

Your treating health practitioner should be able to:

Communicating with colleagues

Watch this short clip from UK MIND's Time to Change campaign...

Liaising with healthcare providers

When healthcare providers, employers and employees work together, successful return to work is more likely. Good communication between all those involved helps keep return-to-work practices specific and focused on work function, workplace behaviour and return-to-work outcomes.

Without good communication, the healthcare provider may not have a good understanding of the workplace issues involved and the person coordinating return to work may not have a good understanding of the health issues.