Managing return to work

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.

Keeping in contact with your employer

Although it may feel very difficult, try and stay in touch with your employer. As well as resolving any issues around sick leave and entitlements, it can help you to feel less isolated. Keeping in contact can also help make returning to work less difficult. There are many options for keeping in touch, including:

  • emails
  • phone calls
  • friends or colleagues from work who can keep in touch and let others know how you are
  • attending work social events
  • coming in for a cup of tea or coffee

Discussing your return to work

Talk to the person coordinating return to work and raise any concerns you might have. The discussion will probably need to cover:

  • what your tasks and responsibilities will be
  • any work activities that may trigger stress and what helps to reduce or manage this
  • the effects of any medications you are taking and how these might impact on your work
  • how much they can disclose to work colleagues
  • barriers to a safe and early return to work
  • any specific needs you have (e.g. time off to attend appointments, inability to do the job in the same way as before becoming unwell)

Managing an ongoing health problem

There are several things that can help you manage your mental health once you are back at work:

  • learn the symptoms and triggers of your mental health problem. You should understand that mental health problems are sometimes unpredictable, and that their impact on both cognitive and interpersonal functioning may make work a challenge.
  • learn techniques for stress management, such as exercise, relaxation, meditation
  • ask for support when you need it, whether from family, colleagues or supervisors
  • have an agreed plan with your supervisor to manage the possibility of relapse. The following template might be useful for this.

Liaising with your healthcare professional

  • have a discussion with your healthcare professional about how to approach your return to work and manage your mental health problem in the workplace
  • discuss any adjustments to your work that may be needed on a temporary or permanent basis
  • if you are taking medication, discuss how any side effects may affect your work
  • make sure you report any participation and activity limitations that are a result of your mental health problem and which may affect your work
  • keep your treating health professional well informed during the return-to-work process.

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Gina's* story
"I returned to work after suffering from chronic depression by working in a part-time role of fifteen hours per week and building hours as I continued to feel better. I maintained healthy boundaries by respecting my limitations and refused offers to work more hours before I was ready to handle the work.

I respected my rights to regular breaks and ate well during the course of the day. I respected my body and went to bed early, sleeping a full nine hours so I could work effectively the next day. I reserved the right to take the very odd sick day when I felt very stressed and looked after myself so I could return back to work. I maintained a regime of cbt therapy with my counsellor and sought regular alternative therapies to avoid further relapse. I kept up my self talk program, stayed present and recognized that I was only in control of fixing problems within my control. I reserve the right to say no and recognise my limitations in attempting to do too much in one day. I keep life simple and honour myself. "
Aged 40, Queensland
*not her real name
Anna's* story
"The first few weeks after my return were the worst. I work in retail and my hours, quite naturally, were at the busiest times of the week. I felt slow and incompetent and asked many questions which may have irritated customers, but I was not prepared to risk making mistakes and being accused of not being that 100% ready to work. My supervisors in-store were terrific and responded promptly and encouragingly to my seemingly constant questions. I took it upon myself to spend a few hours shadowing another employee before my official return to work. By doing this I became familiar with the physical space, some new procedures and just the feel of being back at work.

Whilst there was no opportunity to debrief or discuss any issues with anyone at work in a formal sense, I was still seeing my doctor regularly and spending one day a week at an out-patient program, so there was support available. This support was essential as I doubted myself, that I was capable of returning to work in a meaningful capacity. I am pleased to say that I have now been back at work for nearly twelve months, have increased my part-time hours and am confident and happy there. I always wanted to return to work, but it wasn't easy."
Aged 47, Victoria
*not her real name
Jane's* story
"My supervisor told me that they believed I was the right person for the position. Almost a year on and they still support me. If I feel overwhelmed we have agreed I tell another staff member that I need time out. This time can be as simple as getting a drink, or taking the clients outside for some fresh air.

Some of our clients have mental health problems at times they have asked me to work with those clients when they are distressed. (I do have training in mental health) as I have more patience and empathy for them. When It comes to medical appointments I make them for out of work time. There has been a time when I have needed an urgent appointment during work hours and this request was allowed without an issue."
Aged 52, Queensland
*not her real name