Supporting an employee returning to work after mental health leave

Published on October 13, 2022 by Lyndsey McLaughlin
Supporting an employee returning to work after mental health leave

HR consultant Lyndsey McLaughlin talks you through how to support an employee returning to work, including the return-to-work interview and the benefits of being observant.

Mental health problems are extremely common, with 1 in 4 people in the UK suffering from mental health issues. Thankfully, mental health is no longer a taboo subject. We are more open about it than ever before and discussing the subject is commonplace. Managing employees with mental health problems can be extremely challenging for managers, especially when they are returning to work after mental health leave. It is crucial for employers to take care of employees and manage employee mental health. These are some ways you can support returning employees.

Understand Expectations and Needs – Return-to-work interview

The first step is a return-to-work interview. The interview is an opportunity to discuss the employees current state of mind and their expectations; it is important to listen to them and take their needs into account. For instance, do they need to adjust their working hours? Would they prefer not to be involved in meetings? Will they require more breaks? Do they want a phased return to work? Understanding what they need will help ease them back into work and make it easier for you to provide ongoing support. It can be challenging for managers and difficult to know what to say, or indeed, what to do, which is why it is key to ask the employee and manage their expectations. The return-to-work interview is a good time to drill down on the needs of your employee.

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Informing Colleagues

Managers should never discuss an employee’s mental health with their colleagues. You may wish to ask the employee if they want you to inform colleagues, so they have a better understanding of their struggles, but don’t take it upon yourself to do this. Confidentiality should always be adhered to when it comes to employee’s personal issues unless permission has been explicitly granted. An employee returning to work after mental health leave will feel anxious enough, without feeling that everyone is talking about them.

Regular Conversations

The last thing a returning employee with mental health issues will want is a one-to-one to discuss their performance. Avoid this at all costs until they have settled back in. Instead, just keep in touch and check in to see how they are. Your main priority is to manage the employee’s mental health, not to do or say anything that might aggravate their negative feelings. Managers need to be aware of HR best practices so they can manage their conversations more effectively.

Offer Practical Advice

Managers may not understand staff mental health problems and without experience, there is the possibility of making it worse. It is not a good idea to tell the employee what to do with regards to their mental health. For instance, telling them to take medication. However, there are practical ways you can support them. You might want to suggest that they go for a walk on their breaks, the company may be able to offer financial support if the employee is struggling with money issues, for example. If there is anything practical you can do, then, offer this to the employee.

Provide Encouragement

Returning to work after mental health leave can be hugely worrying for an employee, especially if it’s long-term leave. They would hate to feel that people are talking about them negatively, and that there is the assumption that they have been lying, which can often be the case in the workplace. Make sure you offer encouragement and support to your employee and let them know how much you value them and encourage them. Some words of encouragement can go a long way in helping the employee reintegrate themselves in the workplace. Employee health should always be at the forefront of the employer’s mind.

Back-to-work interview

Observe Behaviours

Of course, you don’t want the employee to feel that you’re constantly watching them, but an awareness of the behaviours of your employee is important. Keep a watch out for changes in behaviour as they return to work. For instance, being withdrawn, a drop in performance or a negative attitude could be signs of an employee struggling with their mental health. Early intervention is better than waiting until the employee needs to take time off again. You can then speak to the employee and offer them some flexibility and support.

Managing mental health in the workplace will help you reduce absence levels and will make your employees feel more supported.

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Written by Lyndsey McLaughlin

Lyndsey McLaughlin is a CIPD qualified HR consultant and recruitment professional who specialises in HR advice and writing about a range of business and staff management topics for employers and managers.

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