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Supporting people to stay in, or return to, work

Being engaged in meaningful activity and being financially stable play an important role in maintaining good mental wellbeing. However, for many reasons, work can become an additional source of stress, or indeed be the cause of significant stress that can lead to poor mental health and lead to presenteeism, burnout or the need to take time away.

What we know about mental health is that early intervention and prevention is incredibly important and can result in better outcomes for individuals and their capacity to remain in work.

Creating a culture where it is okay to talk about mental health

The single biggest shift any organisation can make is creating a culture where mental health is spoken about and treated with kindness and respect. Managers need to feel equipped with the skills to listen and respond to someone who is in distress, but also to feel able to enquire about someone’s wellbeing at work more proactively earlier on.

Supporting staff to access the support they need as soon as they need it

Creating a culture of talking about mental health does not mean that you need to become a therapist. Your role is to help identify when someone is in need and to know where to signpost them for help. It is always better to be prepared, so having a clear structure in place for accessing mental health support, either in house or through an external Occupational Health / Employee Assistance Programme is essential for a mental health informed workplace.

If time away from work is required, providing the right type of support during this period

It is important that staff know that it is okay to take time away from work if this is required and that their workplace will do what they can to support them until they are well enough to return. There is a fine balance to be made between allowing the person the space they need to become well enough to come back, whilst also keeping in touch and letting them know that they haven’t been forgotten.

It can be helpful at the outset of any period of leave to have a plan in place for ongoing contact. This may be weekly at a pre-agreed time, by phone or email and with an agreement that this is in no way about pressuring the person to return prematurely. Staff need to know that they are being held in mind and that they are valued by their organisation. It is also important to clarify what the staff member wishes to have communicated with their colleagues and they may even wish to write an email themselves to be distributed.

Supporting staff in their return to work

When people take time away from work, whether it be for their mental health, physical health, bereavement or parental leave, it can have a profound impact on their confidence. They may feel that they have lost skills associated with their role and may feel disconnected and isolated from their colleagues. Furthermore, they may feel overwhelmed both physically and emotionally when they return, both of which are likely to require compassion and appropriate adjustments.

It is important to discuss with the member of staff prior to their return what feels manageable for them: do they require a phased return with reduced hours? Are there changes that need to be made in the short and long term to enable them to do their job? Will they need time away from work to attend appointments to maintain their mental health? How can the two of you work together to ensure that any problems can be discussed and problem solved as early as possible? And what would the person like to have communicated to their colleagues prior to their return?

It is essential that there is a culture that helps people to feel valued and included in this process. Shame associated with the stigma of mental health difficulties sadly continues to be prevalent and workplaces play a major role in helping to change the narrative around this. Talking Heads can help you to develop your own mental health strategy and equip you with the tools you need to build and maintain a mentally healthy workforce.