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Supporting colleagues back to work

Sometimes things are not simple. An absence could be a week or two or a long- term absence. Absences could been triggered by a set of circumstances which resulted in a mental health impact e.g. a grievance or complaint at work about a manager, a disciplinary hearing or a health condition that also has impacted mental health, a wait for a surgery, a result of a relationship breakdown.

Everyone’s story is different as is their approach to return to work. The barriers to a return will be unique to each person as will the solutions to support their return. If work issues have contributed to the issues, ensure you fully understand the root causes and take steps to address them before return.

Who does what?

  • Returning employees need to also take responsibility for looking after their health and wellbeing in recovery
  • Colleagues play a key role in welcoming them back in a way that would be helpful to the individual and should avoid stigmatising mental health conditions
  • Line managers enable returning employees to access the work adjustments and support that they need to work effectively in agreed ‘Back to work plans’.
  • HR professionals  ensure organisations have the right policies in place to support individual needs and advise line managers  how to make plans bespoke. They may consult Occupational Health Specialists to guide their plans. GPs, registered mental health practitioners and the employee’s medical consultants may also advise employers on returns to work after a sickness absence.

Advice and its limitations

Occupational health specialists, (working with and HR professionals) are used to writing reports on individual employee’s health needs and provide advice on return to work to employers. This advice often includes phased returns, reduced hours, review meetings, job modifications, re-training or upskilling, adaptations for the work environment and flexibility options to support the individual e.g. online rather than face to face and some hybrid working, ‘time out’ to self manage and care, access to health and wellbeing support options through work e.g. mindfulness group and counselling or coaching session access. Solution focused coaching and counselling can be really helpful to unpick the work concerns that could contribute to distress and support transition planning.

A typical occupational health assessment at the point of problem identification may not provide sufficient advice on the return to work at the point when the individual is ready to return. Advice may be standard and not address the individual’s context, ensure that involved managers and colleagues play their part in their recovery journey and recognise the employee’s perceived concerns at the point of return. Further, the work context may change in between the point of assessment, advice and return alongside the employee’s needs and their concerns about their return. One meeting with a relative stranger or a work meeting at the end of the period may be too little too late to build trust and ease the nerves of the returner.

Building trust

Employers need to be in touch with their employees by consent (not harassment or pressurising the employee back to work) but in an ongoing conversation that supports the  refinement of a live ‘Back to work plan’. This can include how their confidentiality and consent to share is managed, their changing concerns and needs of the employee in relation to their return. These contacts need to be contracted from a place of trust and open to the changes that might ensue on a journey of recovery. At times this may be the briefest of communication to wish the person well e.g.  sending a text. The engagements with the individual should be on their terms and should not be requesting work unless the colleague has expressly asked for it e.g. be present at a one off project meeting to keep up to date. The main goal is to build a relationship of trust.

Useful questions for these check- in sessions are

  • Where are you up to right now?
  • Is there anything we can do to help?
  • What are you thinking about in regard to work?
  • Would it help to speak to one of our coaches/counsellors in confidence?
  • How are you considering your return to work?
  • Have I understood your needs? What are you thinking about the plan? Are there omissions or areas that are worrying you? Who would you like involved in your team?
  • Can I tell you more about what the return to work meeting will look like?
  • Is there anything else that we can  address to support you to prepare you for a return?

Planning the step back in detail

It is often other people’s reactions that undermine the return of an employee after a mental health related absence. Unhelpful remarks or negative assumptions on a first day back can scupper the best laid plans!

Do ensure that your managers and colleagues have access to accurate information on mental health conditions and ensure you do not tolerate negative stigmatisation of mental health issues. Often a return to work falls down on the first day of return with ‘Greetings’ that are clumsy or not what the returning individual is seeking. A good plan supports the returning employee to consider their ‘Wish list’ for their return including how they are greeted, how their absence is communicated and they are re-introduced to their colleagues, whether someone takes them to lunch or how they approach their first task. The good return is in the detail and by involvement of the employee. There a lot of template Return to Work formats from HR guidance resources.

For more information:

If you are concerned about Your Return to work plan, give Atrium a call.

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Telephone: 01702-332857

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