Managing return to work

General Principles

Managing return to work after mental health problems can be challenging for business owners or supervisors. Use these general principles to guide your approach:

  • Appoint a coordinator to facilitate the employee’s return to work. In a small business, this is likely to be the owner or supervisor.
  • 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.
  • Keep in contact with the employee while they are on sick leave.
  • Conduct a return-to-work interview or discussion when the employee is back at work.
  • Have a formal, written return-to-work plan.
  • Respect an employee’s confidentiality.
  • Take a collaborative approach and involve the employee “This is what I am suggesting. Are you ok with that?” or “What’s going to work best for you?”

Dos and Don'ts

Dos

  • ensure that your approach is fair and consistent, while being flexible with details
  • tailor your approach to the individual
  • discuss return to work with the employee as early as possible in order to let them know they will be supported and discuss the ways in which this might happen
  • offer a variety of options to the employee for a flexible return to work
  • provide the employee with adjustments, flexible working practices or job task modifications to accommodate their capabilities
  • monitor and evaluate these adjustments carefully and improve them where appropriate
  • inform employees of disability management initiatives so that they have a greater awareness of roles and resources for making adjustments
  • inform those who need to know about reasonable adjustment arrangements made for employees
  • discuss appropriate leave arrangements with an employee who is having great difficulty functioning at work

Don’ts

  • see everything that the employee says or does as linked to their mental health problem
  • assume that the person can only return to work when they are 100% fit
  • make assumptions about the employee’s medical circumstances or what the employee finds stressful or demanding. If in doubt, ask them.

Making use of other supports

Where possible, it can be useful to involve someone other than the employee’s direct supervisor in the organisation to act as mentor.

You should proactively seek support and resources for managing an employee’s return to work from relevant sources (e.g. human resources and occupational health professionals, beyondblue, SANE, Chambers of Commerce, unions).

The Australian Human Rights Commission has produced a comprehensive practical guide for those managing workers with a mental illness.

The Australian government’s JobAccess initiative has a freecall number 1800 464 800 or an online enquiry form where you can find help and workplace solutions for the employment of people with mental health problems.

"It is really important to strike the right balance between giving someone returning to work too much responsibility and taking away those things that give them a sense of belonging in the workplace. Sometimes the temptation can be to say to someone that because they are not well, they don't need to work in a team. But that can actually take away one of the things that helps them at work and gives them social support and a sense of belonging. It does depend on circumstances though, and it's important to weigh up the costs and benefits for the person."

Janine*
Occupational Physician
*not her real name

"I had to manage someone coming back to work after they had been off for a few weeks. He had depression. It was a really busy time at work and I did feel overwhelmed - one more thing added to a pretty long list. But, honestly, although things didn't always go smoothly I really believe that putting the effort in to the process was worth it. I think it saved time and money too in the long run because we did get him back to full time duties and he was someone we didn't want to lose. Replacing him or dealing with a claim - that would have been difficult and a cost to the business."

Guy*
Manager
* not his real name

"The most important thing is to try and have really clear and honest conversations. When people are anxious or depressed they often have a low tolerance for uncertainty or they interpret things in a very negative way. Their stress responses get activated. Some managers, when they see this, they take a softer or more uncertain approach because they don't want to do or say the wrong thing. But this can actually make things worse. It is really important to give the person certainty - to be really clear about their role, how their performance will be assessed, the support the organisation can provide. Sometimes this might involved telling them things that aren't necessarily positive but it is still better to be clear - to give the person certainty as much as possible. This can save a great deal of difficulty in the long run."

Janine*
Occupational Physician
*not her real name

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