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Navigating Mental Health: A Guide to Absence and Return in the Workplace

The charity Mind suggests that 1 in 6 workers are dealing with a mental health problem, such as anxiety, depression or stress. These problems can cause absence from work and may amount to disabilities. According to the CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work report, one of the most prevalent conditions responsible for long-term absence (four or more weeks of continuous absence) is mental ill health.

Studies over recent years have demonstrated that managers and HR are key to a successful and sustained return to work following a period of absence. If the absence and return to work is not managed properly, mental health problems are much more likely to become recurrent or long term, and may have a negative impact on the individual and the organisation. There are some things an employer can do to manage mental health related absences and facilitate a successful return to work.

Culture is the key

Often forgotten about, but one of the most important things employers can do is create a culture that supports their employees to be open about their mental health. Not only can this assist in encouraging employees back to the office, but also prevent mental health sickness.

Unfortunately, 1 in 5 people feel they would be unable to tell their boss if they were overly stressed at work, and less than half of people diagnosed with a mental health problem tell their manager. Having an open culture which encourages open dialogue through regular one-to-one meetings and catch-ups will help to build trust, and allow employees to raise problems at an early stage. This in turn prevents absence.

Remember to keep in touch!

When an employee is off work due to their mental health, employers should ensure they maintain a reasonable level of contact with them. This ensures that the employee does not feeling isolated, provides them with support and helps them feel as though the return to work will not be something to be concerned about.

Please remember that the level of contact should be guided by the employee, so they don’t feel overwhelmed and some employees might not find contact helpful at all! The employee should also inform the employer who their preferred point of contact is.

Agree with the employee what information they feel comfortable being shared with colleagues. It is natural that close colleagues will want to know what is going on and to be updated on their health but ensure the absent employee is happy with their information being shared. Confidentiality is important to gain trust and ensure compliance with GDPR responsibilities.

Reassure the employee that the business will support them during their absence, the employee should not rush themselves to come back to work, and should only do so when they feel able.

Return to Work Meeting

If an employee is ready and fit to return to work, a meeting should be held to:

• Understand whether the employee needs any support or adjustments made to assist their return.
• Agree a plan for returning to work, for example, a phased return where the employee starts on a part time staggered basis.
• Review or undertake a stress risk assessment.
• Provide them with updates and information about anything that happened in the workplace during their period of absence.

Ongoing Support

Once the employee has settled into their return, there is a tendency to forget to provide continuing support for that employee. This should include:

• Ongoing discussions about how they are managing work and their health.
• Continue to consider and discuss whether there is any further support available or reasonable adjustments that can be put in place.
• Ensure their workload is not overwhelming.
• Remind them of other support available to them such as Mental Health First Aiders and Employee Assistance Programmes.


Employer policies can assist in encouraging a successful return to work if well drafted and implemented properly. Advice and guidance can ensure that processes and procedures followed are fair and are designed to prevent discrimination.

It is important that managers understand the organisation’s policies and processes, so they can successfully navigate and implement them.

Management Roles and Training

The role of managers in employees’ mental health needs to be recognised by employers. 61% of employers offered mental health training for managers in 2020 in comparison to 48% in 2019. It is key that they show understanding and consideration for all employees in their team and maintain relationships with those who are out of the business with sickness absence. Managers also need to understand how to deal with return to work meetings and how to support employees’ needs when they are back at work. Managers should also understand how the law relates to mental health at work.

Legal Duties

Remember, once aware of a health condition, employers should consider whether the employee has a disability and if so, are required to make reasonable adjustments. For more information on this see Ellie Forsyth’s Article here.

Employers also have a duty of care, legal responsibilities for employees’ health and safety and preventing personal injury. For more information on this see Stephen Conlan’s Article here.

Please do get in touch with the BPE Employment Team for further advice, assistance with policies or arranging training for managers. 

These notes have been prepared for the purpose of articles only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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