Managing return to work

Communicating with colleagues

Colleagues' reactions are often an area of great concern for people returning to work after mental illness.

Many people describe experiences of stigma and discrimination while others report that support from colleagues played a role in recovery. Experiences of stigma usually happen because of ignorance and fear, rather than ill will. Deciding whether or not to disclose a mental health problem at work is one of the most difficult issues an employee can face. 

The way in which information about an employee’s absence and return to work should be communicated will vary. Some people are more open than others and some workplaces are more accepting of those with mental health problems.

Key issues

  • Worrying about what people think can act as a barrier to return to work. 
  • Supervisors need to manage issues related to team morale and concerns about workload. This may be particularly difficult if there are interpersonal issues complicating a person’s absence. 
  • An employee’s privacy needs to be respected. 
  • Colleagues might not be sure what to say and find it easier to avoid the employee or not mention mental health. 

DOs and DON’Ts



  • be guided by the employee’s wishes. Ask “How much do you want to disclose?”
  • discuss and come to a clear agreement with the employee about who is to be told and what they will be told
  • if the person does not want any information to be given, you may just want to say that the person is having time off for personal issues
  • some colleagues might want to send flowers, cards or even visit the person. If this is the case, ask the employee what they would prefer and pass on their wishes to
  • try to deal with mental health problems in an honest, matter-of-fact way. As much as possible, try and treat a mental health problem in the same way you would treat a physical health problem.
  • watch out for hostile reactions – stamp out any hurtful gossip or bullying promptly
  • check in with the employee about how they are getting on with colleagues as part
    of the process of reviewing the return-to-work plan


  • put pressure on an employee to disclose more than they feel comfortable with
    shroud the issue in secrecy
  • allow the person’s absence or mental health problems to become a source of office



  • discuss and come to a clear agreement with your supervisor about who is to be told and what they will be told



  • welcome the employee back after sick leave. A simple “It’s good to see you back” can be very helpful
  • be respectful of the employee’s confidential mental health history


  • avoid talking with the person for fear of saying the wrong thing. It’s ok to ask “How are you going?”
  • pry for details about their problems

Useful links

How can I explain my mental health problem to co-workers?

Mind UK’s workplace mental health resources

Useful Links – Click the logo to visit the website

"In so many cases, managers or colleagues, they might think that there's a problem but they avoid it, they don't ask early enough. So by the time they do have the conversation, it's really difficult - people are on the back foot and it can get hostile. Managers need to be more proactive and have these conversations earlier. You can keep it low key, just check in with the person, ask them if they are getting the support they need."
HR Manager
*not her real name
"If someone broke their arm we wouldn't be worrying about whether or not we were liable, we'd just send them to the doctor. It should be the same for mental health problems."
OHS Manager
* not his real name
"Some employers think that if they accept that there is a problem, then that means they are accepting liability. Sometimes that stops them helping get employees into treatment. Actually they would be better off getting the person into treatment early - that's likely to reduce the risk of a stress claim. I recommend that where they can, employers offer to pay for two sessions of treatment without considering issues of liability."
Occupational Physician
*not her real name