There are some simple ways to provide support.
Keeping in touch
Managers often fear that contact with someone who is unwell and off work will be seen as intrusive. But sometimes, a lack of contact or involvement from you can make an employee feel less able to return to work.
Early, regular and sensitive contact with employees while they are unwell can be a key factor in getting them back to work as soon as possible.
Try these tips.
- Co-ordinate approaches to the employee so they are not overwhelmed by too many people calling.
- Reassure the person about practical issues such as financial worries, and job security.
- Ask if there is anything you can do to help.
- Continue to invite your employee to social events.
- Explore different means of contact. Some people prefer the telephone, others email, and others may prefer to meet face to face.
- Ask the employee who they would like as their main contact.
- Ask if any work-related issues are contributing to their absence.
- Reassure them that you understand medical and personal boundaries and will respect them.
- Potentially, the employee may be distressed, hostile or remote when you communicate with them. These reactions may or may not be symptoms of their illness or their medication. However, ensure that any concerns raised are investigated and dealt with quickly.
- If the employee is too unwell to be contacted directly, see if there is someone else who can keep in touch on their behalf. As soon as the employee is well enough for direct contact, this should be initiated.
- Don’t assume that the employee would not want you to engage with their family; sometimes that may be exactly what they want.
The most important thing is to let people know they are not forgotten.
It’s also important to remember that employees also have a responsibility to their employers to keep in contact regarding their absence.
What if the person requests no contact?
Sometimes people say they don’t want to be contacted – perhaps because they feel anxious, embarrassed or even ashamed about the way they are feeling and/or behaving.
However, all the evidence shows clearly that staying isolated can hinder a person’s recovery and greatly reduce the likelihood of a successful return to work.
With sensitivity, you can often overcome this barrier.
Sometimes the request for no contact arises because someone at work – sometimes their manager – is perceived to have been a factor in the employee becoming unwell.
Perhaps another manager or another colleague could liaise with the person on your behalf.
Don’t forget, there are mutual rights and responsibilities for everyone involved. If you have made all reasonable efforts to communicate with an employee and they refuse to remain in contact with you, then you cannot be expected to make reasonable adjustments which might otherwise help that person to return to work.
A successful return to work involves the returning employee as well as you their manager and, where appropriate, their GP or support person.
Good planning includes the following.
- Discussing whether any reasonable adjustments to the person’s job or working conditions may be needed.
- Agreeing how progress will be monitored.
- Giving positive and constructive feedback.
- Agreeing how you can identify when the employee has reached the stage of ‘business as usual’.
- Discussing any factors at work that contributed to their illness that could realistically be changed – be honest about the things you can change and those you can’t.
- Encouraging the person to come into the workplace informally beforehand to reconnect with colleagues and ease the transition.
Briefing the employee on what’s been happening in the workplace. Think about informal and social things as well as formal work developments.
There can be a lot of misunderstanding around mental illness and sometimes this translates into behaviour from other team members which can be distressing for the person returning to work. Usually, it arises more from fear and ignorance than from ill will.
You can help.
- Talk to the employee and agree who will be told what, by whom and when. Think about the language you use. Be clear about confidentiality and boundaries.
- Be guided by the returning employee’s wishes. Some people want to be more open than others. Encourage the person to talk if they wish but don’t pressure them to do so.
- Treat people returning from absence due to mental ill health in the same way as those who have been away because of poor physical health.
- Watch out for hostile reactions and stamp out any hurtful gossip or bullying promptly.
- Treat mental health issues in a matter-of-fact way. They are common and should not be a source of office gossip or conjecture.
- Don’t shroud the issue in secrecy – there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Don’t make assumptions about workloads and an individual’s capacity to cope. Keep an eye on how they are going.
Almost no-one is ever fully fit when they return to work after an illness (physical or mental). It takes time to recover speed, strength and agility of both mind and body.
It’s common sense to make reasonable adjustments to a work day in the early days after an extended spell of absence either from mental or physical ill-health. It helps promote full recovery more quickly, and helps ease people back into productive employment.
Most adjustments are made based on common sense following a frank and open discussion between managers and employees. Not everything is possible and each individual has unique needs.
Examples of reasonable adjustments:
- a phased return to work, perhaps starting back part-time and building up
- looking at aspects of the job that the person finds particularly stressful and if possible, rearranging responsibilities
- allowing the employee greater control over how they plan and manage their time and workload
- working at home for some of the time
- allowing time off for treatment and support
- altering working hours
- changing physical environments such as moving a desk for increased people contact or to be in a quieter location
- allowing a person to use headphones to block out noise
- offering a quiet place to go to, to help cope with anxiety or stress
- offering support with childcare
- provide support to develop skills around communication or time management
- considering leave without pay if appropriate
- ensuring people know how to use technology to help support themselves such as diverting their phone or email to give themselves space.
Most adjustments are simple, inexpensive and need only be temporary.
- don’t make promises that you are unable to keep – be realistic
- if you are not sure what will help someone – just ask them
- review the adjustments regularly.
What happens if the return to work is not successful?
Sometimes, despite everyone’s best intentions, a return to work is not possible.
Before making any decisions, review what’s been done to support the person involved and consider if there’s anything else that could help. Then talk realistically with the employee about the best way to move forward.
For example, if all reasonable adjustments have been made in their current job, it may be necessary to consider transfer to another job.
It might be that you need to help the person move on with dignity. If so, take advice from your HR advisor or a HR professional.