How Can We Help Employees After Absence Due to Stress, Anxiety and Depression?

Written by Karina Nielsen Tuesday 12 March 2019
New research is looking at how managers support employees who return to work after mental health issues
woman is working on laptop

Common mental disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression are on the rise and can result in long-term sick leave. Most efforts for people with common mental disorders who are on sick leave is to support them returning to work.

Helping employees return, however, is only part of the challenge. Although employees may return, this does not mean they stay at work and regain former levels of productivity. Many have recurrent periods of sick leave, they may change jobs, some are laid off and others retire early or go on disability pension.

Sheffield University are working with Affinity Health at Work to understand how we can help employees who return after prolonged sick leave to stay and thrive at work. Our preliminary findings suggest that line managers play a significant role in supporting a sustainable return to work.

How Line Managers Can Support A Return To Work After Sick Leave

First, the manager and the affected individual should agree the best process for a return to work and agree what needs to be communicated to colleagues and others within the organisation. For example, workers may fear being stigmatised and may not wish colleagues to know that they have been off sick due to stress, anxiety or depression.

Second, they should agree any work adjustments and follow up on whether these are adhered to. Possible adjustments could be a phased return to work where employees only work part-time for a period. In addition, managers could ensure returning workers do not take work home with them or answer emails out of hours. As part of this, the worker might not be added to a call rota and could have less client contact included in their role.

Greater flexibility can help on days when workers are feeling poorly – they could be allowed to leave the office earlier or work from home.

Third, managers should continue to follow up on a worker’s progress even after the first month of return and after any phased return has been completed: fortnightly or monthly meetings are recommended. These could be regular meetings where managers ensure a discussion of whether current work adjustments are appropriate takes place.

Return To Work Policies Should Be Introduced In Collaboration With Employees

During research at the University of Sheffield, we found that organisations can have excellent HR policies and procedures but if these are not utilised and translated into concrete action by the line manager in collaboration with the returning worker, then such policies and procedures are unlikely to benefit the worker.

Managers Need Professional Training

So far, our research calls for line managers to have a good understanding of how to manage mental health problems. This finding raises the importance of training line managers in mental health issues. A recent survey by CMI showed that less than a third of managers (30%) have been trained in managing mental health in the workplace in the last year and almost half of managers (49%) have never received any training. Only 20% had received training more than a year ago. Equipping managers with the skills to support returning employees post-return should be included in future training initiatives.

We are still collecting data on this project. If you are a line manager with experience in supporting workers with stress, anxiety and depression return to work or you have recently been off work for a period of more than four weeks due to any of these, please get in touch.

Managers who would like to contribute to research about returns to work can contact Hannah Evans:

Karina Nielsen

Karina Nielsen

Professor at the Institute for Work Psychology, Sheffield University Management School