Part 5: Supporting Mental Health and the Return to Work

Wellbeing at Work is a vast topic. There is a wealth of information and for any organisation just getting to grips with mental health support in the workplace, it can be difficult to know where to start. We are going to look at this important topic in six parts across this year.

If sickness absence is poorly managed, the relationship between employee and employer can break down. In some cases, individuals may lose confidence to return to work at all, leading to the loss of a valuable member of staff as well as damaging morale across the organisation.

The way employers manage an employee’s period of sickness absence sends a message out about the organisation’s values which can have a much wider impact than simply just on the individual employee. Trust and integrity are key drivers of employee engagement and organisations that support staff reap the benefits in terms of loyalty and commitment from all employees.

When supporting staff returning to work following a period of absence, it is important not to label people by focusing on a diagnosis. Instead, talk to them about how their ill-health impacts on their work and discuss ways to make things easier.

Employers have duties under health and safety legislation to assess the risk of stress-related poor mental health arising from work activities and to take measures to control that risk. The HSE’s Management standards are designed to facilitate this.

Because poor mental health is likely to be a ‘hidden’ disability and many people are reluctant to disclose such a condition, it is good practice for an employer to make adjustments for someone experiencing poor mental health even if they do not necessarily consider they have a disability under the Equality Act.

The Equality Act’s definition of a disability refers to ‘long-term’, meaning 12 months or more – because many mental health conditions can be fluctuating, the law doesn’t adequately protect some people who may still need appropriate support and adjustments at work.

If you suspect a member of your team is experiencing poor mental health, or they disclose it to you, it’s essential you have a conversation with them about their needs. This will help you to evaluate and introduce appropriate support or adjustments.

Remember, everyone’s experience of poor mental health is different, and how you deal with disclosure should be entirely dependent on the individual.

Follow the conversation checklist found in Mind’s Guide for employees: Wellness Action Plans, to explore how the condition manifests itself, what the implications are and what support they need.

It is a good idea to develop an individual wellness action plan (WAP). This can be done with all employees whether they are experiencing poor mental health or not.

Workplace adjustments for poor mental health need not be costly nor require huge changes and the support people receive from their manager is key in determining how well and how quickly they are able to get back to peak performance.

WAPs are also particularly helpful during the return-to-work process, when someone has been off work because of a mental health problem, as they provide a structure for conversations around what support and/or reasonable adjustments might be useful.

Proactive management of absence is central to the effective management of people with a mental health issue and the role of the line manager is critical. Sometimes an employee may be so unwell they need time off work to recover.

Access to occupational health services is identified as one of the most effective interventions for long-term absence. Also, NHS-funded ‘improving access to psychological therapies’(IAPT) services – offering cognitive behavioural therapy, counselling and employment advice- may benefit employees, with referral usually through their GP.

Early intervention is important. By the time someone has been off sick for a month, the chance of a successful return to work is reduced, as they are likely to have lost confidence and started to become alienated from the workplace.

If you think a member of your team may be experiencing a mental health problem, you may need to take the lead and raise this with them, as people often don’t feel able to bring it up themselves. It’s vital that managers start this process off in a positive way. Simply ask someone how they’re doing.

Clear policies on workplace adjustments are crucial to support staff to cope, recover and reduce the length of mental health-related sickness absence.

These steps are generally quite small and simple adjustments to someone’s job role or extra support from their manager can make a world of difference. Often the necessary change is one of attitude, expectations, or communication – rather than a major change or significant cost.

  • Be positive – focus on what employees can do, rather than what they can’t
  • Work together and involve people in finding solutions as much as possible
  • Remember the person themselves is often the expert when it comes to identifying the support or adjustment they need and how to manage their triggers for poor mental health.

While voluntary and agreed adjustments are supportive, it’s important that people are not treated differently or asked to do things that others are not required to do, for example keeping extra-detailed timesheets. Being micro-managed or made to account for all of your time can be counter-productive and damage peoples’ self-esteem. It may also be discriminatory.

In some cases, people may be unable to identify appropriate adjustments themselves so you many need to try some out. The best approach here is to decide on positive action and regularly monitor and review this to check it’s working, further tweaking the approach if necessary.

Workplace adjustments

Changes to how people perform their role:

  • Flexible hours or change to start/finish time. For shift workers not working nights or splitting up their days off to break up the working week can also help
  • Change of workspace – e.g. quieter, more/less busy, dividing screens
  • Working from home (although it’s important to have regular phone catch ups so people remain connected and don’t feel isolated)
  • Changes to break times
  • Provision of quiet rooms
  • Light-box or seat with more natural light for someone with seasonal depression
  • Return-to-work policies, e.g., a phased return – reduced hours gradually building up
  • Relaxing absence rules and limits for those with disability-related sickness absence
  • Agreement to give an employee leave at short notice and time off for appointments related to their mental health, such as therapy and counselling.

Changes to the role itself (temporary or permanent):

  • Reallocation of some tasks or changes to people’s job description and duties
  • Redeployment to

If mental health problems are suspected or disclosed, the first step is to establish honest, open communication with the employee, and this should be maintained if people take time off for sickness absence. If possible, the frequency of contact should be agreed before someone takes time off.

Clear policies on workplace adjustments and phased returns to work are crucial for reducing the length of mental health related sickness absence.

Small businesses can access the free health for Work Adviceline service provided by NHS occupational health services.

People being redeployed will need to be supported through the process and properly inducted into their new role.

It is also important to recognise that people are individuals and there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach – it’s about making sure people have access to the right suppot, at the right time, and in a way that suits them.


Compiled from an article authored by Gemma Esprey, the Callsafe Services Mental Health First Aider, that first appeared in the June 2020 edition of Callsafe Today.