How can employers support employees and mitigate business risks?
Managing employees who are returning to work after a period of absence due to stress or other mental health concerns requires a proactive and supportive approach. By following proper procedures, employers can protect their business while prioritising employee well-being.
Demonstrating a commitment to employee mental health enhances an organisation's image as a responsible and caring employer. On the other hand, ignoring or mishandling an employee’s mental health concerns can exacerbate the employee’s condition, as well as lead to risks to the business.
As with all issues relating to sickness absence, it’s important to follow the correct processes and be aware of the potential risks associated with mishandling these situations.
What is the correct process that an employer should follow?
When an employee returns to work following a period of absence due to a mental health issue, conducting a comprehensive 'return to work' interview is strongly recommended. It’s important for the employer to understand the employee’s situation, and it’s important for the employee to understand how the organisation can support them and that any expressed concerns are being taken seriously. The ‘return to work’ interview serves as a crucial opportunity to establish open lines of communication and ensure a smooth transition back into their role. Good practice includes:
- Arranging a private and confidential meeting with the employee. Create a safe space where the employee feels comfortable discussing their concerns and experiences.
- Listening attentively to their experiences, concerns, and expectations.
- Collaboratively developing a plan to support their successful return, including any necessary adjustments or accommodations. Adjustments may include flexible working hours, reduced workload, or changes to work arrangements, where feasible.
- Communicating the plan clearly, ensuring that both the employer and the employee are on the same page regarding expectations and support mechanisms.
- Very importantly - documenting the meeting. Keep a record of what was discussed, and what reasonable adjustments (if any) were agreed. Make sure to share this record with the employee.
- Providing access to resources, such as Employee Assistance Programs or mental health support services (often available via private medical insurance schemes), to ensure the employee has opportunities for support.
External support, such as through Occupational Health assessments (with the employee’s consent), may also be useful in helping to understand the employee’s situation and what support may be required.
Always check internal processes and policies for dealing with sickness absence, or other relevant policies such as a ‘Stress and Mental Wellbeing at Work’ policy, to guide employers in supporting employees on their return to work.
What points should employers be mindful of?
Returning to work after a mental health absence can be challenging. While each employee's situation is unique, there are common areas that require sensitivity and understanding. Here are some points to consider:
- Avoid making assumptions or stigmatising mental health conditions. Treat each individual with empathy, respect, and confidentiality.
- Provide a supportive environment and be patient as the employee readjusts.
- Confidentiality: Ensure that all discussions and information related to an employee's mental health are handled with utmost confidentiality, in line with data protection regulations.
- Keep accurate records of discussions, adjustments made, and any ongoing support provided. This documentation can protect the business in case of disputes or legal challenges.
- Be sure to adhere to employment laws and regulations concerning mental health and disability discrimination. Failure to comply may result in legal claims against the business.
- Treat employees with stress or mental health problems fairly and equally, ensuring they have access to the same opportunities and benefits as their colleagues. Avoid discriminatory practices or biased behaviour.
What are the risks of not following up after an employee’s return to work?
Neglecting to address mental health concerns and failing to provide necessary support may result in an employee's condition worsening over time. If employees feel unsupported or that their needs are not met, they may become disengaged, leading to decreased productivity. In extreme cases, the mishandling of mental health issues can result in legal claims against the organisation, impacting its reputation, financial stability, and employee morale.
If a sickness absence matter escalates, and a manager has not followed the proper process from the beginning, it can create significant problems. Firstly, failing to adhere to proper procedures and documentation can weaken the employer's position in any potential legal disputes or claims. Without a clear record of the steps taken to support the employee's return to work and address their health concerns, the employer may struggle to demonstrate that they fulfilled their duty of care and provided reasonable accommodations. A well-managed return to work decreases the likelihood of the returning employee claiming unfair dismissal or discrimination.
How 3CS can help
We support all types of organisations whether they require assistance in specific projects, ad hoc support and guidance, or advice on outsourcing part or all of their HR function. For further guidance or support on matters such as:
- conducting ‘return to work’ interviews
- supporting employees with health concerns
- implementing or updating Health and Wellbeing policies and procedures
please get in touch with your usual 3CS contact.