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.

However, a small minority of people take sick leave and do not return to work at all. This can have lifelong effects on social and family relationships, financial circumstances and quality of life. People in this situation have said that they realise that if they or their employers had done things differently they would not find themselves in such difficult situations.

In general, the longer a person is off work the harder it is to return. It is very important for employers and employees to address barriers to return to work as early and effectively as possible.

Key issues

  • work issues (real or perceived) that may have contributed to the person’s absence. These may include bullying
  • stigma and lack of understanding of mental health problems and their effects on work performance
  • mistrust or suspicion about whether the employee’s illness is ‘real’
  • poor or non-existent planning for return to work
  • low self-esteem or poor self-confidence


Tips for overcoming barriers to return to work

  • If you are a supervisor, don’t get caught up in the issue of whether an illness is ‘real’ or not. Focusing on the return-to-work process and approaching an employee from a position of care and concern are much more likely to lead to successful return to work.
  • Attempt to explore and address any work-related contributors or causes of stress, including bullying. Employers and employees should work together to prioritise solutions. This can be done in return-to-work discussions and as part of the process of making reasonable adjustments.
  • Develop a clear, written return-to-work plan. Again, employers and employees should work together to do this.
  • Supervisors and employees (and colleagues where appropriate) should make an effort to find out about mental health problems and their effects on work performance.
  • Employers and employees should agree on who might need to know about the employee’s condition and what information should be given. Confidentiality and privacy should be respected.
  • Employees should work with their health professionals to address self-confidence or other work-related issues.

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Martin's* story
"My story may have a different outcome to others. I did not eventually return to my chosen profession, despite my best efforts. So, sometimes you need to realise this is not just a passing phase and learn how to come to grips with it. I had been in the finance industry since I was 17, Banking, and that was how I identified myself. After over 30 years and having moved in financial planning, my mind was becoming jumbled. It was a difficult time as my life was going along swell, pretty much as planned. After a while, depression was diagnosed. It was then I found out my family (sibling, mother, aunts, uncles) had also came up against this hurdle too. For a few years I was on and off medication without any great effect on my work or lifestyle. Then, without notice (or reason) it came back with a bang (or should I say a blackout). My employer was great and after 4 weeks off work I returned and soldiered on, initially at half speed, which I thought would be gradually improve. It didn't.

After over 6 months of still battling at work, despite great support from my employer, and after talking to my doctor, counsellor and wife, I realised that I just had to stop working altogether and concentrate on getting better. It was difficult decision but one I knew I had to take. Still, though, I thought this would only be a temporary situation and after 6-12 months I would be back as good as ever. I did what I thought were all the right things, medication, meditation, resting etc and this worked. After 12 months I was able to go back into the office, but just doing some administration work. It was easy and I was going well. Guess what? After 3 months I knew I was going backwards again and I pulled the plug before darkness completely set in again.

That was 2 years ago. Now, I am very good, just doing casual work in another job, with more physical than mental work, and it suits me fine. Changing from my working life profession felt like a loss of identity. But, heh, I just made a new identity, me. And am better for it."
Aged 56, Victoria
*not her real name