Earlier this month, as part of the "This Can Happen" conference, I spoke about my experience of returning to work after mental health problems and sudden bereavement. I was part of a panel with Anita Guru and Rachel Webster, who shared their own experiences and insights, and we were expertly and energetically chaired by Mark Goldberg.
One thing I enjoy about taking part in this type of event is the opportunity it provides to reflect on challenging times in my life and how the lessons I learned then might be relevant to the work I'm doing today and (possibly) to others facing similar situations. For this session, Mark encouraged us to think about how we might support colleagues coming back to work, in light of our own experiences. In this blog, I set out a few thoughts as to how managers can make a positive difference.
My first reflection is to always take it seriously if a colleague tells you that they are struggling and need a break. To have reached this point, your colleague is likely to have overcome quite a few internal barriers to sharing this information, including an understandable desire not to "let people down", concerns about showing their vulnerability at work and possibly a lack of awareness of how much pressure they are feeling. So, whatever else is going on, you need to find the time to listen, to thank your colleague for their openness and to explore what could be done to improve the situation.
A second thought is that, if someone working for you does need to take time off work to get better, it can be helpful to establish a channel of communication, so that you can keep in touch as they recover. This may not be possible in a mental health crisis and communication need not be very extensive or frequent. However, a text exchange or short call every week or so, asking "how are you today?" can help ease the path back to work by maintaining a thread of connection between your colleague and their employer. From personal experience, finding a means of staying in touch that doesn't involve 'firing up your work emails' can be very helpful.
Thirdly, I benefited hugely from taking a phased return to work following mental ill health and the loss of my daughter. Coming back to work in these circumstances, whether in person or remotely, can be exhausting. There is a need for time to rest and to process what in many cases has been a life-changing experience. I have found that work can be a welcome distraction and play an important part of rebuilding self-belief, but it can also overwhelm if you're not quite ready. An occupational health assessment, or guidance from HR colleagues, might help judge the right pace for return, and you should always be open to flexing the pace if it's not quite working out.
Fourthly, as part of the process of returning to work, it may be a good idea to revisit your colleague's work objectives and local ways of working. This is especially important if the working environment has itself been a contributory factor to your colleague's need to take time off. An honest conversation after a couple of weeks back may highlight wider issues which need addressing, in order to prevent other team members going through similar difficulties in future.
Finally, I know that it can be hard to support somebody experiencing mental health difficulties, or going through a traumatic situation. As a manager, you should be mindful that, although you can support colleagues and help them manage the transition back to the workplace, there are limits on what you as an individual can achieve. Your workplace may offer other sources of support (eg access to counselling through an Employee Assistance Programme) and your colleague will, hopefully, have other sources of help outside the workplace. A good manager can make a positive difference but it's not all down to you.
I hope this is helpful. I'd be really interested in other hints and tips for managers, as well as constructive feedback if there's anything in this blog that misses the mark.
Senior Director, Remedies Business and Financial Analysis
Competition and Markets Authority
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