Three fundamentals must be in place for an employee’s return to work to be successful:
The work itself, and the employee’s presence in the workplace, should not pose a risk to the employee or co-workers.
The employee must be able to perform the tasks of his or her job at a level where meaningful work is possible with appropriate accommodations.
The workplace must be welcoming and free from harassment and other pressures that might delay recovery.
Evaluating these fundamentals requires a look at the demands of the job, and at the employee’s progress, including:
The employee’s symptoms, and the severity of those symptoms
The effectiveness of treatment
The employee’s resilience
The employee’s ability to prevent a relapse (by identifying and avoiding issues that lead to relapses)
The level of mental acuity and stamina the job requires
If your organization has a disability management department, you can work closely with it, and call on the expertise of the treating physician or psychologist as appropriate. Most importantly, start the reintegration process by talking to your employee.
Ask your employee what they need
More than anyone else, your employee will know what they are capable of, and what they need to succeed in the workplace. If you want to know how you can make their return to work successful, start by asking them—you’ll get valuable information that can smooth the reintegration process for everyone, and they’ll be motivated by the reassurance that they work in a supportive environment.
You should weigh their self-assessment, though, against those made by the treating physician and, if available, a disability case manager. Generally, work is an important support for people with mental health problems, and most are keen to return to work. Occasionally an employee who is ready to return to work may try to put off their reintegration. On the other hand, someone who’s not yet ready to make a meaningful contribution to the workplace may be over-eager to get back to work or attempt to return to a fuller schedule than is advised by the treating practitioner. Try to reach an informed consensus by communicating with the other reintegration team members. In some instances, particularly in smaller organizations the “reintegration team” may be the employer (manager or supervisor), the employee and the treating physician.
When you talk to an employee about their return to work, you don’t need to know about their diagnosis or details of their treatment (although they may volunteer that information). What you do need to know is what reasonable accommodations your employee will need to get back on the job, the pace at which they’ll be able to reintegrate into the workplace, and if their work will be affected. Keep the conversation focused on job performance.
You must work with the employee to identify appropriate work. If it is a new or modified job you must ensure that the employee has agreed to the change. Modifying a job is a form of accommodation. You are not necessarily required to offer a different job to the employee or to create a new job for them.
Matching tasks with your returning employee’s abilities is key to successful reintegration. You can ask the treating physician or psychologist for advice on the patient’s abilities. Be prepared to give them a job description to help them assess suitable work during the reintegration process.
Set realistic goals and standards based on the needs of the organization and the employee’s current abilities. The process of setting clear, defined goals is a useful way to reintegrate employees into the workplace.
You might be able to begin their reintegration by sending them work at home or having them return part-time to work. The model should be based on agreements reached with the employee, the employee’s health care provider, the manager and, if appropriate, the Long-Term Disability insurer.
Lead by example
Stigma, like gossip or infighting, is poisonous to a productive work environment. You can support an employee’s return to work, and encourage higher morale and better output from your team, by demonstrating that you still trust, respect and value a co-worker who has been on disability leave for a mental illness.
If you know the cause of your employee’s disability, you might want to learn more about it. Dispelling myths about mental illness is the most important step in eliminating the stigma that leads to discrimination. When co-workers see you treating a returning worker with trust and respect, they’ll likely follow your lead.
Don’t be surprised if fellow employees approach you with questions about the returning worker, or complaints about the accommodations they may see as special treatment. For advice on talking to other employees, see How can I explain the situation to other employees?
Employees are often afraid to return to work because they fear harassment. They may have been present when jokes or negative comments were made by colleagues about people with a mental illness. You have an obligation to ensure that the employee is returning to a safe environment that is free from harassment. Ideally, the organization has a policy on harassment and employees are aware of their obligations. If the message is communicated as part of regular training rather then when a particular situation occurs, the returning employee is less likely to feel as though they are to blame for any discipline that may take place.