Supporting an Employee to Return to Work After Mental Health Leave

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Written by Carmen Date; Peer reviewed by Carly Webster

Returning to work after a psychological injury can be daunting. Here are some guidelines for people leaders to keep in mind when supporting an employee to make a successful return to work transition.

Research shows that a supportive manager and a clear return to work plan can aid an employee’s speed of recovery and ability to stay in work long-term [1]. An effective return to work plan is influenced by individual factors such as the diagnosed condition, individual coping ability, and support outside of work. People leaders are responsible for understanding their role in this process and making reasonable workplace adjustments to help employees thrive. It is also a legal requirement for businesses to make reasonable adjustments that support someone with a mental health condition, regardless of the cause. Here are some guidelines to help people leaders support employees on their journey of returning to work, starting from the time they’re away, right through to returning, and finally thriving in the workplace.

Creating a mentally healthy work environment: Prevention is better than cure

People leaders that have close contact with their direct reports and have the means to influence their work environment play a crucial role in creating a mentally healthy workplace. Whether or not the organisation currently sees mental health as a priority, there are things that people leaders can do to create a psychologically healthy work environment.

As with any condition, prevention is better than cure. The quality of our work environment has a significant impact on our emotional, psychological, and physical wellbeing and is recognised as a protective factor that promotes good mental health [2]. As part of a broader health and wellbeing policy, the organisation should have a specific policy around return to work for employees
with mental health issues. This return to work policy should be formalised and written in plain language, to ensure that it is
clear who is responsible for carrying out any actions or procedures.

Prior to Return: Support begins before an employee returns

Support for an employee with a psychological injury or illness should begin before they are ready to return to work. It’s important for people leaders to maintain an appropriate level of contact during the employee’s absence from work. Keeping in touch reminds the employee that they are a valued member of the team and can reassure them that their position is secure.

The conversation should come from a place of care, concern, and respect for the employee’s boundaries. People leaders should use these conversations as an opportunity to listen and understand some of the barriers impacting the employee’s return to work (i.e., stigma, uncertainty, work-related stressors). Understanding these barriers can help shape the support an employee is provided and optimise their recovery. It’s important that the employee understands that they aren’t being “monitored” but that you’re checking in to show your support.

Initial Planning Discussion: Setting up for success

First and foremost, the person’s capacity for work needs to be respected and form the basis for any return-to-work discussion. A person’s capacity to return to work will be guided by the individual and their treating health professional. If they are not yet ready, the discussion should be based on how you can support them to build their capacity and the types of workplace adjustments that can be implemented to assist with return and maintenance at work.

Once the person is ready to return, the first step is to help them re-integrate and plan for success. The purpose of the discussion is to establish a return-to-work plan that considers their evolving needs. Working collaboratively with the employee is key to empowering them in their own recovery and setting achievable, sustainable goals for a smooth transition back to work.

During the initial discussion, you may wish to discuss details around reasonable work adjustments (i.e., tasks, work hours, team arrangement, work location), clarify your own role and responsibility in their recovery, understand the employee’s current work capacity, and set clear expectations for how you will monitor progress and provide ongoing support. Remind the person of their right to confidentiality and tell them you will keep any personal information shared with you private (unless there is a risk or safety concern).

Ultimately, the initial planning discussion is a chance to touch base with the employee and build trust and engagement to make returning to work seem less daunting. Once you’ve collaboratively agreed upon a plan and set goals, prepare a formal document that outlines actions and responsibilities – while this is not a fixed contract, it can be referred to in times of uncertainty to help clarify expectations.

On the First Day: Showing your support

The first day back to work should set the tone and make the employee feel welcome. The first week of work should be as low-stress as possible. Consider reducing the employee’s workload and ensuring that there isn’t an overwhelming backlog to catch up on. Discuss with the employee how, and what, they would like others to be told about their absence. Communicate this to the rest of the team before the person returns so they can welcome them back also.

Meeting the employee before they arrive at the workplace is a great way to show your support. You could catch up for a coffee, greet them at the door, or share part of the commute to work. Ensure they have plans for lunch – possibly with a co-worker or someone else they feel close to in the team. Set aside time at the end of the day to debrief with the employee and reflect on how they have managed the day. Taking the time to show your support on their first day back sets an example for the team and contributes to a psychologically healthy and safe culture that helps employees to thrive.

Ongoing Management: Support beyond the initial return

It’s important to maintain support for the employee beyond their initial return to work. This could involve regular conversations with the employee, asking them how they’re going, and assessing what changes can be made to help them thrive. Conversations should be recovery and strengths-based; focusing on their progress and leveraging the assets they bring to the team. It’s important to provide the employee with autonomy and the channels to communicate their changing needs. Review any goals formed in the return-to-work plan and provide constructive feedback to help them shape new ones. Ensure they have access to support provided by the organisation such as the EAP service or mental health training.

At times, we all need extra help with our mental health and for some, this requires time away from work to recover. People leaders are responsible for leading the mental health conversation at work, driving changes, and building safety among the team. Given the benefits of employment such as stability, routine, and social connection, employers play a crucial role in helping an employee get back on their feet. People leaders can support their employees by remaining connected during their absence, forming a detailed return to work plan, and monitoring for progress during their reintegration. There are many reasons to invest in creating a psychologically safe and healthy workplace that supports, promotes, and protects the mental health of all employees.


Prior to return:

  • Maintain appropriate contact
  • Establish a timeline to manage expectations
  • Provide support and empathy
  • Determine how the organisation can help
  • Address the barriers to returning to work

A return-to-work-plan should:

  • Outline key responsibilities of manager and employee
  • Identify key triggers and current barriers to success
  • Outline how progress will be monitored and review
  • Identify key work adjustments
  • Detail when a review will occur
  • Be monitored and adjusted as needed

Tips for the first day:

  • Meet them before they come to the office; for coffee, at the doors, or for part of the commute to work
  • Limit their workload and ensure there’s no backlog
  • Ensure they have lunch plans with a co-worker or friend or other plans they are comfortable with
  • Debrief at the end of the day

Ongoing Management looks like:

  • Checking in regularly, involving the employee
  • Adopting a strengths-based approach
  • Providing ongoing support and modifications to workload
  • Enabling employee autonomy
  • Promoting the organisation’s support services and resources
  • Leading the team mental health conversation