Managing Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace – Part Two: Managing Absence

Having good mental health in the workplace is a vast subject, which is why I split it into three separate posts. In Part One, I wrote about the importance of providing good training and resources for line managers, as well as preventative measures, and how to intervene, provide support and signpost for outside help when needed.

This blog focuses on managing absence part three will look at the return to work.

Maintaining Contact with an Absent Employee

It’s important to keep in touch with any employee who is on long-term absence. But it is vital in the case of someone who is absent because of mental ill health. Maintaining contact can help prevent the individual from feeling isolated, and most people will be very grateful for that.

Your Sickness Absence policy and procedure should set the ground rules for making managing absence easier for all. It should state that:

  • employees have a responsibility to stay in contact when they are off sick
  • if employees don’t respond to reasonable attempts at contact, the organisation cannot be expected to be aware of, or make adjustments for, their health condition on return to work
  • flexibility around contact frequency is necessary, as what is appropriate for an employee absent with a mental health problem may differ from what is appropriate for an employee absent with a physical illness
  • encourage line managers to keep in touch with absent employees, emphasising that staying in touch with people who are off sick with mental ill health helps make their eventual rehabilitation and return to work easier for them
  • employees should be allowed to have contact with the HR department or another nominated individual rather than by their line manager where appropriate, for example if the employee perceives that the line manager is a contributing factor to his or her ill health
  • the organisation and employee should agree a method of communication; often, employees absent with mental ill health prefer to communicate via email rather than by telephone or face to face. If occupational health need to assess the employee, or the employee requests a visit, home visits can be undertaken after a risk assessment has been carried out
  • inform the employee about any available support, such as an employee assistance programme or occupational health service, and gain the employee’s permission for these services to get in contact
  • employees should not be contacted by other colleagues about work-related issues during their absence, nor be expected to check work emails or voicemail
  • a record should be kept of all contact with the absent employee.

Dialogue with the absent employee should be started as soon as possible, either by the line manager or the designated person, and maintained throughout the employee’s absence. These are excellent opportunities to tell the employee about work, and to reassure him or her that the organisation will support them during their absence and return to work.

You may need to adopt a slightly different approach to maintaining contact with an employee who is experiencing a serious mental health problem. Electing to maintain contact with the employee through a representative may be the most effective approach.

If your absent employee’s colleagues would like to get in touch with them, just as with a physical health problem, most people with mental health illnesses appreciate enquiries about their wellbeing. Initially, ask your absent employee what their wishes are in this regard, and what they would like you to convey about their sickness absence to colleagues.

Action Plans

It is vital that an employee’s return to work is managed well, especially when absence was due to mental ill health. A lack of support and poor communication are the most frequently cited issues to an effective return to work.

Develop an action plan prior to the employee’s return to help reassure them that their needs will be met. This typically involves the following:

  • assemble a multi-disciplinary team that includes the employee, his or her line manager, and any specialist treatment agencies
  • the line manager should agree the action plan and will be responsible for any adjustments agreed, even if discussions were with another nominated individual
  • be guided by the employee on when they wish to return to work, and put in place any reasonable adjustments to support this
  • an early return to work can help in the rehabilitation of employees who are not yet 100% fit; this can be facilitated by practices such as phased return to work
  • the action plan should address the employee’s health needs both for returning to work and on an ongoing basis
  • include agreed steps for the employee and manager to take, such as return to work adjustments and ongoing support, reviewing them regularly
  • set out expectations clearly to prevent misunderstandings, such as a realistic timetable for a return to normal duties.

Ensure that the action plan is flexible – mental health conditions fluctuate, and recovery can be a rocky road. The manager must patiently support the employee well beyond the first few weeks after return to work. When reviewing progress, adjust the employee’s workload as needed, for example by allocating fewer tasks or allowing longer deadlines.

HR and occupational health may need to provide guidance to managers to support them monitor the health and wellbeing of returning employees.

As there is a lot to take in here, I’ll cover what you need to do next, in order to ensure a smooth return to work for your employees, in the final part of this blog series.

In the meantime, if you have any further queries on managing mental health absence in the workplace, do call me on 0118 940 3032 or click here to email me.

* This blog is an edited version of an excerpt of an article by XpertHR – Managing Mental Health.