RTW after common mental health disorders

We recently attended the Health and Wellbeing @Work conference in Birmingham where Senior Researcher from Tilburg University Dr Margot Joosen presented her findings from a study focusing on returning employees to work who were or had been absent with a mental health issue.

Struggling with mental health

Mental health has become a more and more important topic for companies in the UK. For instance, 20% of the working-age population suffer from mental health problems (OECD, 2012) and the estimated cost of mental health issues for the UK economy is around £70 billion per year (OECD, 2014). Furthermore, work has been found to be good for recovery from a mental health condition, particularly depression.

The project used focus groups and face-to-face interviews to identify the barriers to returning to work after an absence due to a mental health-related reason.

The study found that 5 topics were central to a successful return to work:

  1. Workers’ motivation to return versus emotions, cognitions, and coping
  2. The type of work one was returning to
  3. A safe, welcoming, and stigma-free work environment
  4. A personalised approach to return to work support
  5. Collaboration between (healthcare) professionals

Key findings were:

  1. Often the mental health issue was not the main reason for the absence, but the main reason for employees taking time off, were problems with the job, managers, or other similar factors. To clarify, the mental health condition was seen as a symptom of the underlying problem.
  2. The severity of the mental health condition didn’t determine the length of the absence. Some severe cases resulted in only short-term absence whereas some of the long-term cases were due to more minor mental health issues.

The study came up with the following recommendations for practice:

  1. Improve managers’ knowledge and skills in guiding workers with common mental diseases.
    – The study found that managers played a key role in a successful return to work of any employee. Educating and facilitating managers is key to helping employees with mental health issues return to work.
  2. Support workers in gaining self-awareness and regaining control
    – Employees who gained control sooner were able to return to work sooner. Short-term absentees were found to be more proactive than those employees that were absent for long-term.
  3. Personalise workers’ RTW support by focusing on their values, views, and needs
    – By focusing on the issues that made the employee become absent there is a real chance for the employee to recover and continue in his/her current job.
  4. Collaborate between professionals
    – It was found that if healthcare professionals could collaborate to support the employee this would have a significant impact, however this was found to be very difficult in practice.

If you are interested in reading more about this study, please visit: www.iosh.co.uk/rtwmentalhealth