Managing time off and preparing for return to work

CIPD’s Absence Management Survey 2016 showed that an increase in reported mental health problems is strongly associated with an increase in stress-related absence. Both are related to a culture of working long hours (‘presenteeism’), and are less common where there is a stronger focus on employee wellbeing.

There will be times when employees need time off because of their mental health. As a line manager you will have an important role to play in ensuring that an employee’s absence and return to work goes smoothly.

Your organisation should have an absence management policy. It’s important to make sure it’s appropriate for employees who are off work because of their mental health.

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What should I do for my employee during a period of sickness absence for mental health?

As a line manager, there’s a lot you can do for your employee during this period.

  • Regularly communicate with them via telephone or email. Managers sometimes worry that this will be seen as invasive, but most people who are off work for mental health problems say that regular contact is helpful. If you don’t stay in touch, they may feel that they are not missed or valued.
  • Ask how they’re doing and make sure they’re kept in the loop with work issues. You may ask them to stay in contact with you during sick leave. Some people find it easier to do this via text or email.
  • Some employees may request no contact from you. This hinders recovery and can prevent a successful return to work.
  • Remember they may be embarrassed or ashamed. Consider having a policy of ‘light touch’ contact for everyone who is off sick for any reason. This may make contact feel easier and less stigmatising.
  • Your employee may consider you to be part of the problem. Who could they have contact with instead – perhaps another manager or someone in HR? Addressing any work issues will make it more likely they’ll feel comfortable and confident to return to work.
  • Don’t put pressure on them to return to work before they’re ready or to name a return date immediately.
  • If they haven’t spoken to you about their mental health before this point, give them a chance to explain the problem and what’s happening for them in their own words. Have a look at our information on dealing with disclosure for more tips.
  • If you haven’t done so already, it can be helpful to refer to occupational health on the first day of absence. But make sure your employee does not get lots of uncoordinated contacts from different people. This could get confusing or overwhelming.
  • Make sure you reassign their work. This may involve recruiting temporary staff to help. It’s important they don’t come back to a backlog of unfinished work and tight deadlines.
  • Make sure your employee knows that they’ll be supported during their absence and their job will be there for them when they return.
  • Discuss what you’ll share with team members. Sometimes it can be helpful if the rest of the team understand more about what’s going on and why. But this should not be shared without consent.
  • If the team has been informed, suggest that they keep in touch as well – perhaps send them something from the group.
  • Make sure you address any gossip or stigmatising behaviour within the team.
  • As they near the date when they’ll be returning to work, make sure you explain any processes and how they’ll be supported. You should be clear and reassuring and give them a chance to ask questions and share any worries.

Long-term sick leave

These interventions are particularly important if your employee is off for two weeks or longer. A month’s absence or more can lead to loss of confidence and feeling separate and alienated from the workplace.

The ‘fit note’ scheme can also help people return to work slowly by doing tasks that are appropriate for their health. A fit note will tell you about your employee’s fitness for work in general. You will need to discuss possible changes that could be put in place to help them return to some duties. The Department for Work and Pensions has produced some guidance for line managers and employers.

What should I do to support my employee’s return to work?

Your employee might be nervous about how they’ll cope and how you and others will react.

But a return to work may also represent a return to normality. In turn, this brings an increase in self-respect and self esteem. A well planned return to work can help prevent potential relapse.

Supporting return to work is about good people management. You need good communication skills and sensitivity to the individual and the context of their absence.

Before they return

  • Consider lighter duties and/or a phased return. It takes time to recover after a period of mental ill health. It may help your employee to come back to work slowly, especially if they’ve been off work for a long time. It may also be appropriate to give them lighter duties at first and to try and keep their first few weeks as stress-free as possible. These temporary adjustments can help ease them back into full employment.
  • Think about retraining requirements. Do you have any new systems or processes in place? Would refresher training help in any areas? Have their job role or responsibilities changed in any way and are they prepared for this?
  • Check whether a backlog of work has built up. Try and deal with this before their return.

The first day back

  • Think about how they’ll be feeling. If possible, organise a return-to-work interview for their first day back. If not, make sure you have time to meet them and answer any initial questions.
  • Make sure you and the team are welcoming and tell them how much they have been missed.

Return-to-work interviews

The return-to-work interview should be a supportive process – a chance to help work out any underlying problems and plan reasonable adjustments. Any disciplinary or performance management processes should be dealt with separately.

  • Set up or review an employee’s Wellness Action Plan. This is a good structure for discussing the reasonable adjustments that may be part of your legal responsibility.
  • The Health and Safety Executive publishes a return to work questionnaire. This can help you identify and discuss workplace causes of stress and mental health problems.
  • During the interview, listen carefully and use open questions. Ask if there are problems at work, or difficulties outside work and discuss possible solutions. Our dealing with disclosure information has some more suggestions for conducting open conversations about mental health.
  • Many organisations have absence procedures that are triggered by the amount of time an employee has been off sick. But this can be a stressful process to deal with when returning to work. Give your employee as much support as possible. Reasonable adjustments can help employees feel more able to work effectively and more confident about future attendance.
  • If possible, avoid formal procedures for underperformance until reasonable adjustments have been put in place and reviewed. We have more information on managing underperformance.

Ongoing support

  • It’s easy to return to business as usual too quickly. Remember that it will take a while for your employee to recover fully. Make sure you offer ongoing support.
  • Stay in regular contact with your employee and arrange regular review meetings. Make sure they feel able to approach you with their concerns. Listen carefully and respond quickly.
  • If necessary, adapt your approach to management to be sensitive to their needs. Stay positive and help them maintain a level of normality.
  • Ask for help if you need it. Talk to occupational health or HR about any concerns you have. Discuss any worries with your own manager and seek their support.

How do we set up a WAP?

  • Check whether your organisation already offers a WAP template and guidance.
  • If not, you may want to set one up within your team and consider making the case for organisation-wide adoption.
  • You might want to introduce the idea of a WAP in one-to-one sessions with employees and encourage them to have a go filling one in. Remind them it’s a personal document that should explain their experiences and needs in a way that makes sense to them.
  • Plan some time to discuss the WAP and any reasonable adjustments with them before it is finalised and signed off. Explain what might be possible but try not to offer too many of your own advice and suggestions.
  • Make sure you review it regularly — a WAP should be a dynamic and flexible document.

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    • Absence Management 2016 – annual survey report. CIPD and Simply Health. [accessed May 2017]
    • Manager Support for return to work following long-term sickness absence- guidance, Competency Framework for Managers to Support Return to Work. CIPD, Goldsmiths University of London, Loughborough University, Affinity Health at Work. [accessed May 2017]
    • Line Managers’ Resource: Managing and Supporting people with mental health problems in the workplace. Health and Safety Executive, October 2007. [accessed May 2017]
    • Managing and supporting mental health at work: disclosure tools for managers. Mind, CIPD. December 2011. [accessed May 2017]
    • Getting the most out of the fit note: guidance for employers and line managers. Department for Work and Pensions, updated December 2016.

  • Produced by Clare Foster, freelance health editor, and Nick Ridgman, Head of Health Content, Bupa UK, September 2017
    Next review due September 2020

    Bupa UK expert reviewers:

    • Naomi Humber, Psychology Services Manager, EAP
    • Stuart Haydock, Resilience Lead, Health Clinics
    • Sarah Deedat, Head of Behaviour Change