Developing a mental health return to work plan

How to develop a mental health return to work plan

Employees need to feel comfortable when it comes to discussing the topic of mental health in the workplace. They need to be able to seek support before things get too much, which if not addressed may lead to a long term sickness absence.

For those who have taken time off due to mental illness, returning to work can be a daunting experience. This could be due to the fear of mental health stigma, and perceived difficulties with how they might cope and manage their illness when they return.

It’s crucial that organisations treat a mental health related absence in the same way that a physical health related absence would be managed - the same return to work procedure should be carried out and the same level of support needs to be made available in both instances.

Our HR and Wellbeing Advisor, Jason King, who is trained in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), outlines how you can support employees who are returning to work after a mental health related absence:

  • Stay in contact throughout the absence

    Make sure to maintain contact with the employee whilst they are absent. A lack of contact could cause the employee to feel isolated from the workplace and make their return to work more daunting. Showing that you care by taking part in regular and sensitive contact allows you to help the employee take the right steps towards returning to work. You should consider home visits and inviting the employee on informal visits to the workplace ahead of their return.

  • Plan the return to work

    Design a detailed return to work plan in collaboration with the employee. Make sure that this is documented so that progress can be monitored, and stick to your end of the bargain. The plan needs to work for both parties to ensure a timely return to work where the employee feels comfortable.

    For the return to work to be successful, it needs to be personalised to the employee. Make sure that you know their triggers and their coping strategies, so that you are able to produce a return to work plan that works for the employee based on their specific needs.

    It may be necessary to make reasonable adjustments, so you will need to consider the requirements of the employee’s role and how the effects of their mental health condition may affect their ability to perform.

    You may need to make adjustments such as reassigning some of their responsibilities to other members of the team, or consider a phased return to work including part time hours and flexible working. It is vital that you take an individualised approach as each person has a different requirement.

  • Be mindful of mental health stigma

    Unfortunately, whilst attitudes have started to change towards mental health, stigma still exists. Employees need to feel comfortable when it comes to talking about mental health issues, so you need to make sure that an environment is created where people can talk openly and seek support without being discriminated.

    An organisation-wide culture that raises awareness of mental health interventions is one of the best ways to combat mental health stigma. According to research by Deloitte, this organisation-wide approach can have up to an 8:1 return on investment*. The key to success is making sure that everybody in the workplace is contributing towards a positive working environment, with the precedent set from the top down.

  • Take part in open and honest conversation

    Continue to make regular contact with the employee once they have returned to work. This is crucial in keeping up to date with how they are coping, allowing you to continue to make any reasonable adjustments and provide additional support where necessary to aid recovery.

    The more conversations that take place with employees regarding their mental wellbeing, the more likely you are to spot issues and prevent further absence – and this applies to all employees not just those returning to work.

  • Avoid assumptions on workload and an individual’s ability to cope

    Don’t assume that the employee will be able to speak up when things get too much. This reinforces the importance of regular open and honest conversation so that you are able to intervene if they find themselves struggling, and offer them the right support.

  • Use advance statements

    If an individual has been diagnosed with a mental health issue then they are likely to be best placed to know what their triggers are and what the best way is to support them. Asking the individual to complete an advance statement is a powerful tool for them to manage their own mental health as it outlines details such as indicators of ill health, the support they would find useful, emergency contacts, GP/doctor information and details on practical arrangements.

    Using advance statements means that you are better placed to spot the signs of mental illness and provide the right support to the employee should they fall ill at work. Knowing their triggers means that you are able to mitigate risk by making reasonable adjustments to avoid potential triggers, and enables you to spot the signs and intervene if an employee is struggling.

  • Make sure policies align with the message you want to portray

    HR people often talk about alignment of HR strategy to the wider goals of an organisation and there isn’t a better example of this than wellbeing. Through policies, working practices and operating processes, HR professionals can unlock the potential of their people. HR and senior leaders can go a long way to create and steer the wellbeing agenda but it is the people managers who will implement and create a wellbeing ethos.

Training staff in mental health is important because it allows them to work together to eliminate stigma by building an open and supportive culture, and crucially it enables them to spot the signs and offer support to employees who may be struggling. Find out more on how to manage mental health in the workplace here, which also features information on how to book onto one of our upcoming Mental Health First Aid training courses

*Mental health and employers: The case for investment, Deloitte UK, October 2017

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