Kiri Allan controversy puts spotlight on return to work after mental health leave

'It's a fine balance,' say experts citing psychological, legal considerations

Kiri Allan controversy puts spotlight on return to work after mental health leave

When should someone return to work after mental health leave? The issue was highlighted recently when Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was criticised for Kiri Allan’s return to work following time off due to mental health issues.

The MP later submitted her resignation after being charged with careless driving.

Hipkins defended his actions in a subsequent press conference, saying he handled the situation with compassion and respect.

“I don’t believe that mental health should disqualify someone from employment,” he said. “What is important is that people are supported. I believe that Kiri has been supported here and wherever she has needed time off, we have given her time off, I have given her time off — in fact I encouraged her to take more time.”

Supporting the return to work after a mental health leave

Knowing how best to support employees suffering in this way can be difficult, especially in terms of assisting their transition back into their role.

“It's a fine balance, because often people get a lot of benefit from being back at work, enjoy that and get some sense of satisfaction and self-efficacy,” says Dr Dougal Sutherland, workplace psychologist.

“At the same time, if people are already struggling, you don't want to completely overload them.”

In general, he advises a planned transition: “That could be a staggered approach but depends too whether work is the cause of the stress or the stress is from someone’s personal life.”

If an employee says they’re ready to return to work but the employer needs reassurance, it’s not out of the question to consider psychological assessments by a professional, says Carolyn Ranson, employment law specialist at Smith and Partners Lawyers.

“Often there are clauses in employment agreements which might deal with this,” she says.

“If it’s silent, it comes down to a health and safety issue. It's no different than somebody being away injured, and their employer asking for a medical report. It’s the same for mental health, especially if elements of the job have caused or contributed to the issues, it would be fine for an employer to request a medical report confirming they’re ready to come back to work. If they’re going to ask for that, then they should be prepared to pay for it.”

Creating the right culture for mental health

But well before an employee is ready to consider a return to work, the employer should be taking steps to ensure people who are struggling with mental health feel supported while they’re working.

It’s key for organisations to make the subject less taboo so everyone feels more comfortable talking about it and that becomes embedded in the culture.

“There's a real place for leaders to be creating that sense of what we call psychological safety in the workplace,” says Sutherland, who is also CEO of Umbrella Wellbeing.

“Firstly, it needs leaders to be vulnerable and disclose information about themselves. That would involve people saying, ‘I'm really struggling with my wellbeing at the moment’ or ‘I’m struggling with something at the moment’ — so creating a sense that this happens to us all and it’s okay.

“We would often recommend too that leaders go to EAP themselves so they can say, ‘Yes, I’ve been, this was my experience’.... and be honest about their feedback.”

While the area is very sensitive, it's becoming much more acceptable for people to admit if they feel they’re not coping, adds Ranson.

“As a firm, because such a big focus is stress, we have weekly one-on-one meetings with all our staff. It’s not a file meeting, it's a ‘How are you going? What can we do to help you this week?’

“That’s an opportunity to say, ‘Oh, actually, I'm finding it really difficult’.

With those weekly meetings, “it’s easier and more natural to have those sort of conversations. And that's where businesses can start building that culture of acceptance,” she says.

How to respond when an employee is suffering

If a manager is concerned about a team member’s mental wellbeing, they might, with the employee’s consent, refer them to an EAP, says Sutherland.

“The gold standard, when someone lets you know about the problem, would be setting up a wellbeing plan, saying, ‘Let’s sit down, talk about what's going on for you, and we’ll agree the best things to do’. It might be that includes getting some psychological support – and maybe the organisation pays for it. This opens the option for the manager to ask, ‘Hey, have you been to any of those sessions? How's it going?’.”

The process can be most effectively planned when decisions are made in negotiation with the person, he says, and the discussion is best started as soon as the problem comes to light.

“It’s better for the employer to have that conversation upfront and say, ‘Hey, we're really interested in supporting you back to work’ and negotiating between the psychologist and the individual,” he says. “At this point, both parties can agree what information will be fed back to the organisation too.”

Keeping in touch before return to work

Time away can prove isolating for employees, but it doesn’t have to mean they don’t still feel part of the team, says Ranson.

“Our advice is always made on a case-by-case basis, but a big thing we find is the importance of keeping employees engaged and feeling part of the business, even while they're away.

“That might mean being kept in email loops or communication loops, around social things or those elements within the firm that go beyond just the work, because that workplace culture is so important. People can feel cut off and isolated and it makes it more difficult to transition back into work if that’s the case.”

It's a balance she says, depending on the type of business, the method of communication, the individual and their triggers.

“It would be unusual for an employer to send work-related emails during the leave time though, although there might be cases where employees request it,” adds Ranson.

“You wouldn’t want to be sending them unless an employee’s asked for it. Even then, you’d need to consider whether that might make things worse and whether the person needs to have a complete break.”

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