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May 01

Mental health: ensuring a healthy return to work


For some employees, returning to work following a period of sick leave due to mental health challenges can be a significant milestone in their recovery. It can also be overwhelming and worrying and, even though they are feeling better, they may still be experiencing mental health challenges.

As a result, it’s really important – and a legal duty – for both employer and employee to effectively manage this return.

Mental health charity, Mind, offers some helpful tips on how a return to work can be managed, going right back to thinking about returning to work:

Preparing for a return to work

There are some practical things that you can encourage your employee to do to make returning to their job easier:

  • Keep in touch with colleagues. Using social media can be a good way of communicating if the employee doesn't feel ready to see them face-to-face.
  • If your company has a staff bulletin, put the employee on the mailing list.
  • Arrange for the employee to drop in to work before they return, to say hello to colleagues and get re-familiarised.
  • Encourage routine in the time leading up to their return: going to sleep and rising the same hours as if they were going to work to readjust to their working hours.

Employer support

As an employer, there are lots of practical ways you can assist the employee with their return:

  • Enable them to return to work gradually – for example, by starting part-time as part of a 'phased return' to work.
  • Make a schedule with the employee for their first week back. Plan what they will be doing, where and when, so they know what to expect. Arrange for the employee to catch up on any training they have missed.
  • If the employee is worried about walking into a busy office on their own, arrange for someone to meet them at the front desk.
  • Schedule regular catch ups between the employee and their manager to talk about how they are getting on.
  • Develop a Wellness Action Plan with the employee.
  • Make any changes requested to allow them to be better able to do their job.
  • Let the employee know if there are any specialist support services on offer, for example; occupational health services or an employee assistance programme (EAP).

What is a Wellness Action Plan?

A Wellness Action Plan (WAP) is a personalised, practical tool we can all use to help us identify what keeps us well at work, what causes us to become unwell, and how to address mental health challenges at work.

It also opens up a dialogue between the employee and their manager or supervisor, in order to better understand the employee’s needs and experiences and ultimately better support their mental health, which in turn leads to greater productivity, better performance and increased job satisfaction.

WAPs are also particularly helpful during the return to work process, as they provide a structure for conversations around what support will help the employee and what reasonable adjustments might be useful to discuss and consider.

What the law says

Pam Loch, Managing Partner at Loch Employment Law, explains how the law affects the return to work process:

“It’s important to note that there are no specific laws that solely govern the return to work processes; however there are aspects of related laws which may be relevant.  

“You may invite your employee to attend a return to work meeting before they resume their duties. This is a chance to agree with your employee how their return to work be managed. 

“As an employer you are also obliged to ensure that it is safe for your employee to return to work under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. As a result, a workplace risk assessment involving the employee should be carried out in order to identify any potential safety hazards associated with the employee’s return.

“If the employee’s medical condition has lasted 12 months or is likely to last at least 12 months (or recur) and has a substantial impact on their ability to carry out normal daily activities, then they may meet the requirements of being disabled under the Equality Act 2010.   This means that as an employer you have an additional obligation to ensure you consider and make reasonable adjustments to the employee’s role. If an employer fails to do so, this can amount to disability discrimination.”

Case study

The Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has produced a guide entitled A healthy return: Good practice guide to rehabilitating people at work, which features the following example of an employee returning to work following mental health challenges:

Tara, a 35-year-old clerical worker, felt she couldn’t cope with her work, and visited her doctor. The doctor wrote out a fit note for ‘stress’, and signed Tara off work for two weeks.

Within the first few days of absence, Tara’s manager phoned her, simply to begin dialogue and show concern. The manager dealt with her sensitively, and didn’t put any pressure on her by asking when she was returning to work. The manager ended the call by agreeing that they should update each other the following week if Tara hadn’t returned to work.

When her manager phoned again, Tara had seen her doctor and had received another fit note. At this stage, the manager asked Tara what the doctor had advised and if she was waiting for treatment or counselling.

Her manager also asked if they could have a chat about her experiences, along with the occupational health adviser, human resources manager and someone to act as her companion (a work colleague or union representative). Tara agreed.

As a result of the conversation, it turned out that recent changes to Tara’s role had been causing her anxiety, and she felt incapable of doing this aspect of her job. The occupational health adviser and the manager suggested to Tara that, when she felt better, she could return to work on a part-time basis, and that the new duties that were causing her stress would be given to someone else during that period. They also told her that she should be given training to help her carry out her new responsibilities.

Tara was happy with these recommendations. After six weeks, she returned to work on a part-time basis. Once her training was complete and her manager had checked that she felt she could cope with the work, Tara returned to work full-time.


This article was originally published in Speak Your Mind magazine, which has also featured articles on taking time off for people with mental health challenges and staying well at work. These issues of the magazine are available to download here.

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