Supervisors play a critical role in successful return to work after mental illness. If you are the person coordinating return to work as well as the supervisor, a good understanding of the following areas will help you support an employee who is off work or returning to work after sick leave due to a mental health problem, leading to better outcomes for the employee, you and your business.

  • your responsibilities for managing the attendance and return to work of employees with a mental health problem
  • the importance of good people management skills, including effective communication, rather than being knowledgeable about the employee’s mental health problem
  • your organisation's policy on return to work and how to put this into practice
  • that successful return to work is linked to support from managers, the degree of control over work flexibility, the demands placed on them at work, the clarity of their role within the organisation, and their relationships at work
  • the important role the employee plays in their own return-to-work process
  • what organisational resources might be available for workplace adjustments
  • how to introduce workplace adjustments and monitor the return-to-work process
  • the the factors that make it difficult to return to work and how you can minimise their impact
  • what entitlements are available (e.g. family, sick and annual leave) for employees with a mental health problem
  • your legal responsibilities, such as those under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992)
  • understanding that it is your role to assist the employee to get the help they may need, but not to diagnose mental health problems or to provide counselling
  • recognising the limitations of your responsibility towards an employee with a mental health problem

You also need to know how to communicate with employees on sick leave or returning to work after a mental health problem. Good communication requires:

  • being sensitive to and understanding the individual and their context
  • managing the expectations of an employee returning to work
  • knowing how to have sensitive conversations with employees, including how to handle those that do not go as planned

Mental health training can help supervisors develop the skills necessary for managing employees with mental health problems.

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Top 10 tips

Top 10 tips for supervisors

  1. Maintain an appropriate level of regular contact with the employee and discuss return to work as soon as possible.
  2. If appropriate, appoint a coordinator to facilitate the employee's return to work
  3. Avoid getting caught up in the issue of whether an illness is 'real' or not.
  4. Don't take things personally, no matter how hard the situation gets.
  5. Consider the approach to managing return to work that you would take if an employee had a physical illness, as many of the principles will be the same for a mental health problem.

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*:

What to do when an employee discloses a mental health problem

For many employees, the decision about whether to disclose a mental health problem at work is a difficult one to make. As a supervisor, responding with empathy, understanding and a lack of judgement can play a key role in helping the person to stay at work or return to work successfully if they do take time off.

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.

Fostering a supportive work environment

Watch this short film about supporting employees with mental health 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:

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:

Managing underperformance and mental health problems

In some cases, managing mental health problems can be complicated by underperformance issues. These situations are often very difficult for supervisors and employees, particularly if an employee takes time off work with stress or another mental health problem while they are being disciplined or having their performance managed.

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:

Dealing with a distressed employee

The skills required for managing an employee with a mental health problem are the skills of good people management. While some knowledge about mental health problems and their signs and symptoms is valuable, you definitely don't need to be an expert.

As with many things, prevention and early intervention can help avoid situations in which employees become distressed. As part of the return-to-work process, do:

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.

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.