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.

Reasonable adjustments

The person coordinating return to work should organise to make reasonable adjustments that remove any barriers that prevent an employee from fulfilling their role to the best of their ability. This involves identifying suitable duties for the person returning to work.

When making reasonable adjustments, do:

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.

The return-to-work discussion or interview

Return to work should be discussed with the employee as soon as is reasonable. It is not generally necessary to wait until the person is 100% fit to discuss and plan return to work. In fact, the earlier the discussion is started the less daunting return to work is likely to be

When the employee is back at work, the person coordinating return to work should conduct a return-to-work interview or discussion. This is particularly important if return to work has not been discussed during the employee's leave of absence.

Communicating with colleagues

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

Employers' return-to-work obligations

There are a number of different laws that impact on the management of employees returning to work after mental illness. While these vary between states and territories, here is a brief summary:

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.

Policy and procedures around return to work

As part of a broader health and wellbeing policy, your organisation should have a specific policy around return to work for employees with a mental health problem. This return-to-work policy should be formalised and written in plain language, to ensure that it is clear who is responsible for carrying out any actions or procedures.

Working with rehabilitation providers

As an employer you may use the services of a rehabilitation provider to help in the management of return to work after a mental health problem. When rehabilitation providers, employers and employees work together, successful return to work is more likely. As an employer, you need to guide the rehabilitation provider in order that they can work effectively. 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.