Managing return to work

Policies 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.

Your organisation should promote awareness and a clear understanding of the policy to all employees, and should ensure that it is implemented, supported and promoted by all stakeholders. Your organisation should also ensure that everyone understands their responsibilities relating to return to work, that everyone has the skills and knowledge to put their responsibilities into practice, and that the policy is implemented consistently for all affected employees.

An ideal return-to-work policy should include at least the following:

  • a commitment to helping employees return to work after sick leave due to a mental health problem, and encouraging their return to work through adjustments rather than prolonging sickness absence ‘to play it safe’
  • expectations, roles and responsibilities of all parties involved in the return-to-work process
  • what should happen when someone discloses a mental health problem, with a commitment to ensuring that employees who have experienced a mental health problem are treated fairly, equally and consistently
  • how supervisors should seek advice regarding an employee’s mental health problem, the actions they should take, and when and how this action will be supported by the organisation
  • sources of advice within the organisation on what can be done to help an employee’s return to work and continued employment
  • the reasonable adjustments that can be made to retain an employee who has developed a mental health problem so they are not put at a disadvantage in their job, including provision of time off to attend medical appointments
  • procedures for keeping in contact with staff on sick leave, including when and how employees should notify absence and what is expected from the employee while on sick leave
  • provision for return-to-work plans with agreement of everyone affected defining responsibilities for putting the return-to-work plan into action and reviewing its progress, including arrangements for return-to-work discussions or interviews
  • links with other key policies, such as human resources, health and safety, equal opportunity etc., and company employee benefit schemes

Feedback on the return-to-work policies and procedures should be invited from employees and from employee representatives, with the content reviewed regularly.

You may find this sample policy useful as you develop policies for your organisation.

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"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