After mental illness: supporting worker return to work

Tuesday, 24 November, 2020

After mental illness: supporting worker return to work

A study into workers’ mental health problems has called on employers to take greater account of an individual’s needs when planning their return to work. Researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), conducted the study to understand individual variability in the return to work process for employees on sick leave due to poor mental health. The study identifies a range of trajectories that workers with mental health problems endure as part of their return to work, with some workers able to return quicker than others, emphasising the need for more tailored approaches. The study suggests that attention to individual situations and conditions could help prevent mental health problems from worsening and also help employees achieve a sustainable return to work. IOSH Research Manager Mary Ogungbeje said it is imperative to better understand the individual needs of those returning to work after experiencing mental health problems, particularly as employees worldwide re-enter the workplace after the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown. Ogungbeje added that many workers will have been living with stress and social isolation as they worked from home, away from their ‘normal’ working environment.

“With the costs to society of absenteeism, presenteeism and unemployment due to mental health problems, the study attempts to get a better understanding of individual variations and the return to work process,” Ogungbeje said. The study emphasised the importance of giving hope and perspective to employees on sick leave with mental health problems, suggesting that individuals benefit from more frequent communication with their employer and more support from co-workers, stakeholders and the wider community. This includes tackling the stigma often attached to mental health problems. The study found that nearly half of those missing from the workplace because of their mental health return to work within four to five months on average, with a small chance of relapse during the return-to-work process. “This study will promote awareness of individual differences in the return to work process and so stimulate reflection and discussion on how interventions can be tailored to meet the needs of the employee,” said Maitta Spronken, primary researcher on the study.

Faster return-to-work trajectories included more employees with stress complaints and adjustment disorders, while slower trajectories featured more employees with burnout. This suggests that timely interventions could prevent the development of more severe mental health problems and long return to work trajectories. The study showed that relapse in workers who returned to the workplace from a mental health problem was more likely to be influenced by work or psychosocial factors since trajectories, with or without relapse, did not vary with the type of mental health problem, the size or the organisation, or demographical factors. “With such significant societal costs associated with mental health problems, not to mention people’s quality of life, we need more insight into how employees who have these issues return to work and a greater understanding of the different ways individuals negotiate this process,” said Dr Margot Joosen, leader of the research study team.

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