5 Ways to Help Employees Return to Work After Mental Ill Health

help employee back to work after mental ill health

We’re all faced with obstacles at work and sometimes just coming back after a holiday can feel challenging. However, when an employee is returning to work after mental ill health, the experience can be even more daunting.

We asked Liz Walker, HR Director at Unum, to share advice on how employers can support returning staff and help ease them back into the work that can be so beneficial to their recovery.

1. An important asset

First off employers can help ease concerns of returning staff by affirming that they are an important asset to the workforce. Creating an environment that supports open conversations about mental health is also key.

Encouraging a culture of transparency will help to ensure those taking time off feel less stigmatised, and may even encourage other employees to proactively seek help, perhaps avoiding absences further down the line.

2. Be flexible

Returning to work after time off can be difficult and taking on too much too soon could create stress and anxiety. Speaking to the employee to get an idea of how they’re feeling and how much they feel they can take on before deciding on next steps is vital.

Allowing employees some flexibility around their working patterns can help relieve stress and anxiety. The best course of action may be to reintegrate slowly, beginning with reduced hours as they get back into the swing of things.

In some cases, solutions can be as simple as allowing employees to start later to avoid stressful morning traffic or earlier to better manage home life.

Employers may be able to adjust their work environment to make it easier for those suffering from mental ill health. Better seating arrangements can reduce feelings of isolation and offer support. Safety risk assessments can also help minimise health-related stress.

3. Knowing where to find help

Unum research also found only 10 percent of line managers feel they have received sufficient training to deal with mental health problems at work. Ensuring managers have the skills to maintain positive staff relationships and recognise signs of distress, as well as ensuring team members are able to perform well, is important.

Training for managers should not only focus on reactive measures, but also help managers to spot ‘triggers’, know how to enable sensitive conversations where needed, and be able to signpost employees to effective support.

Even simple steps, like ensuring employees are aware of resources like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), can have a big impact.

EAPs offer direct, confidential contact with experts who support individuals with a whole range of areas causing emotional distress, from family issues and financial worries to work-related problems, addiction and mental illness. They can help to limit the impact of mental health issues on the individual employee, co-workers and the business before problems escalate or return.

4. Early intervention

Businesses investing in employee wellbeing usually reap the rewards and employees who feel valued are less likely to miss work through sickness. Ensuring staff know what resources you have to offer and how they can access them when needed is essential.

Offering Mental Health First Aid training can give managers the tools to keep themselves and their colleagues healthy from the start. There are many different resources available and some third-party providers offer in-house training too.

At Unum, we also recently introduced a Mental Health Pathway scheme – an early intervention service for policy holders – which gives both employees and employers access to specialist support when concerns are raised.

5. Stay in touch

If an employee is on leave, consider what communication may be helpful so they don’t feel isolated or out of the loop.

Our own research showed a good relationship with a line manager came second only to financial reward when it comes to what people want most at work. This is a good reminder of the important role managers can play in supporting the mental wellbeing of their teams, and how they are often the first port of call when employees face a problem.

About the author

This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Liz Walker, HR Director at Unum. In her time at Unum, Liz has spearheaded work to remove the stigma of mental health in the workplace and actively works to help raise awareness of mental health as an asset and an integral part of a holistic health and wellbeing strategy.

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