Return to work planning for employees with mental illness

Helping employees return from disability leave can be daunting, but for staff with mental illness there can be even more confusion. What can you do to ease their return to work?

Return to work planning for employees with mental illness
The stigma on mental health has been reduced through a range of campaigns and education, but it’s still not an area most HR pros are comfortable managing. While a broken leg presents a tangible, measurable disability, mental illness is often misunderstood and poorly communicated.

“We’re seeing a lot of mental health claims becoming more and more prevalent in all the sectors we work with,” Kelly Alarie, from Cowan Insurance Group, said. “This is across the board, we’re seeing higher rates of mental health illnesses and a lot of workplaces that are unable to handle it or are very uncomfortable with handling anything to do with psychiatric illness.”

It’s vital that employees who are off work with mental illness feel supported to return to work and don’t feel stigmatized. Employees returning from disability leave due to mental health issues may need different accommodations than those with physical injuries, but they don’t need to be onerous.

For example, someone coming back from physical disability may need physical restrictions such as a stool to elevate their foot. The employee with mental health disabilities written instructions of their priorities for the day or a modified schedule to allow medications they take at night to wear off before their shift.

“The biggest mistake I’m seeing is that people don’t document the steps they take to offer accommodation or modified work. HR needs to do document every step they’ve taken,” Alarie said. “Or people will get on the phone and they will phone their employee who is on disability and say ‘We can offer modified duties’ but the other person doesn’t know what that will entail or what support they will get.”

While employees may think time off is the best solution to mental health problems, sometimes it can make problems worse as factors such as isolation and a lack of cognitive stimulation exacerbate symptoms.

Alarie said a common issue is that managers don’t know what to say to those returning to work from mental illness. When someone returns after breaking their leg there’s an easy script, but what can managers say to someone who is suffering from depression?

“People don’t know what to say to someone with mental illness but it can be as simple as asking how they’re doing,” she said. Simple, but the important part is really listening to the answer.

“It can be a time-consuming practice so make sure you have the time to sit down and listen – it’s not a passing in the hall ‘How’s it going?’,” she added. “It’s about ensure HR has regular check backs to see how they’re coping and if there’s any support that they need to continue them on their progress to full time work.”

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