Solving the productivity puzzle: What is needed to support workers with common mental disorders stay at work and be productive after long-term sickness absence?

By Karina Nielsen, Chair of Work Psychology, Director of Institute for Work Psychology, University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield and the research-based consultancy Affinity Health at Work was in 2018 awarded one of four pioneer grants to answer the main research question of:

What are the resources that help workers with common mental disorders stay  and be productive after return to work?

What’s the problem?

Sustainable return to work for workers with common mental disorders (CMDs), such as stress, anxiety and depression, presents a major societal challenge in terms of scale and costs. In the UK alone, stress, anxiety or depression accounts for 44% of all ill-health related cases and 57% of all working days lost to ill-health in 2017-2018 (HSE, 2018). In total, 595,000 workers suffered from anxiety, stress or depression (new or long-standing) in 2017/2018 (HSE, 2018). Furthermore, according to the Labour Force Survey (LFS), 15.4 million days were lost due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2017/2018. Recurrent sick leave is prevalent and 69% of workers with CMDs report that they accomplish less than they would like to (OECD, 2012). There is an urgent need to better understand how employees can be better supported to return to, and stay in, productive work.

What did we do?

We interviewed 38 workers who suffered CMDs and had recently returned to work after long-term sickness absence and 20 line managers who had experience managing workers with CMDs and their reintegration into the workplace. We interviewed some workers and line managers several times to understand how the need for support change over time. Based on our research, we developed a set of recommendations for what can be done to support returned workers be productive after they return.

How can returned workers be supported?

We developed recommendations for what individuals can do themselves, what their colleagues friends and family can do, what their line manager can do and what the organisation and Human Resource departments can do.

 Recommendations for returned workers

• Listen to yourself and your body: Do not lose a focus on the things outside work that enable you to build your personal resources such a healthy eating and exercise.

• Set clear boundaries between work and leisure time: Do not read emails or take the laptop home with you. If you find this difficult, schedule in time to relax, socialize or exercise.

• Structure your work day: If your work day does not have a clear structure, create your own structure, break assignments and projects into smaller tasks and set clear goals.

Recommendations for groups

• Treat returning colleagues as you did before they went on sick leave.

• Let returned colleagues know that you are willing to help and you are there if they need help with their work, but do not insist.

• Continue to provide support in the long-term. Returned employees may take weeks or months before they are able to resume full duties.

• As a family member or friend, be available, but do not be judgemental.

Recommendations for leaders

• Agree with the worker at an early stage in their sickness absence period what needs to be communicated to colleagues, HR, occupational health and others. Do not disclose information agreed with the worker, even after return.

• Continue to follow up on workers’ health and work adjustments, even after the immediate return to work. It may be important to remind workers of agreed work adjustments.

• After critical periods, make sure you follow up and signal that you are available and can help and support.

• Make sure you are familiar with the sickness absence and flexible working policies, are aware of where to find further information and support within your organisation, and facilitate the employee in using these policies to support their return.

Recommendations for organisations: HR

• Allow for work adjustments and support and ensure that these are readjusted on an ongoing basis, if necessary.

• Allow for flexible work, be ready to extend part-time working if needed, and authorise work from home where possible.

• Be flexible in applying the flexible leave policy allowing workers to take holiday or unpaid leave at short notice, this may prevent relapse.

• Allow for accommodating absence policies to support the fluctuating nature of CMDs.

• Facilitate discussions between line managers and returned workers.

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