Returning to Work and Thriving at Work After Sickness Absence Due to Mental Health Problems

By Professor Karina Nielsen, Principal Investigator on a Pioneer grant funded by the Productivity Insights Network

One overlooked aspect of solving the productivity puzzle is how we can support employees with mental health problems return to work to stay and thrive at work after a period of long-term sick leave.

Common mental disorders (CMDs), such as stress, anxiety and depression are costly to individual, their families, organisations and society as a whole. In 2016/2017 it is estimated that 12.5 million working days were lost due to CMDs. During this period, each individual on sick leave due to CMDs took an average of just under 24 days off.  A recent report found that the cost of mental health problems to the UK economy is £34.9 billion a year or £1,300 for every employee in the UK economy. Despite what might be expected, it is not the cost of actual sickness absence that is the highest but the loss of productivity; people being at work and unwell, also known as presenteeism, or people leaving their job as a result of poor mental health.

A lot of the current research has focused on supporting people with CMDs return to work but the figures above tell us that we also need to focus on supporting workers once they have returned. These workers often suffer from reduced work functioning and are less productive even if they are no longer so ill they need to be signed off work. Another challenge is that sometimes people return before they are ready because they are worried they might get laid off; this of course also means they struggle to be productive and thrive at work

Although there are no official figures in the UK, data from other countries show that relapse is frequent, as is turnover. Furthermore, over time workers who have been on sick leave due to CMDs also have a higher risk of being laid off due to reduced performance. We therefore need to understand what can be done to support workers with CMDs once they have returned to work after a period of sickness absence. Support includes not only helping them stay at work but also to achieve their previous performance levels and help them thrive at work.

Support for workers may come from resources outside work such as a healthy life style, support from family and friends, continued support from their GP, from local charities and community support and indirectly through the availability of affordable housing and childcare. Organisations can also do a lot to support workers with CMDs returning and thriving at work so that they can reach previous levels of productivity. Resources that organisations can offer include work adjustments, making sure that workers return to a safe environment where colleagues are not afraid to ask questions but at the same time accept that work adjustments may be needed. Line managers play a big role in making work adjustments, and adjusting these adjustments over time as the returned worker’s needs change. HR policies and practices such as flexitime and working from home policies can also help.

How we can support workers with CMDs to be productive and thrive at work is what we want to explore in the project Returning to Work and Thriving at Work after Sickness Absence. If you are interested in the project, please contact Karina Nielsen

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