Staff who have been off sick with stress must be carefully reintroduced to the workplace rather than written off as collateral damage
John Binns was ten years into what was shaping up to be a highly successful career when he finally became overwhelmed by pressures at work and in his personal life. “I went from being a consulting partner, leading teams of people and making decisions, to being in a psychiatric hospital where I wasn’t allowed to have my own razor,” he says.
Looking back, he believes the signs were all there – he found it harder to make decisions and became anxious about things which ordinarily wouldn’t worry him – but this was 2006 and neither he nor his employer recognised the signs of his impending breakdown.
John’s story could have been very different, though, were it not for how Deloitte integrated him back into the company once he felt able to return. “I came back to work on an adjusted role but, after about two months, I was back doing what I was before and I had some subsequent years where I was equally successful if not more than I had been in the ten years previously,” he says. “So it was a great business decision and a great personal decision for me.”
Today, he works with a range of employers, including Deloitte, advising them on how to spot the signs of stress and help ensure those who are affected are able to pick up their careers once they have recovered.
Stress and mental health is a problem all employers are likely to have to face at some point. According to the charity Mind, one in four people suffers a mental health problem each year and being able to rehabilitate successfully those who have had an issue is vital if employers are to continue to retain talented individuals. Yet knowing when and how to go about bringing people back into the workplace can be tricky.
The starting point, says Dr Sandi Mann, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, is to maintain a regular dialogue with people while they are away from work, including talking about when they might be able to come back. “An employee will know if they feel they can cope; if they still feel panicked and are experiencing symptoms of stress, such as headaches or having difficulty concentrating and making decisions, then it is too early,” he says. “People who return to work too early will likely relapse, so it is in no one’s interest to do so.”
Being able to rehabilitate successfully those who have had an issue is vital if employers are to continue to retain talented individuals
Mandy Rutter, head of resilience and trauma management services at psychological health consultancy Validium, recently took part in a research project designed to identify what people needed to make a successful return to work after a long absence. “There were three factors that were consistently referred to – motivation on both sides, having an independent professional to speak to and the attitude of the line manager,” she says. This latter group is particularly important, says Ms Rutter, and managers need to get the right balance between ensuring those coming back are able to contribute without being put in a position where they could become ill again.
Employees also have to be careful not to over-do the hand-holding when people return, warns Deborah Price, managing partner at Making Great Leaders. “Staff members often see a ‘broken’ colleague coming back to work,” she says. “This can lead to further stress on the returning employee who feels, and is perceived as being, incompetent.”
A phased return is often useful, as it gives employees the opportunity to reintegrate themselves into the workplace, says Kate Nowlan, chief executive at employee assistance provider CiC, who also suggests weekly meetings between the individual concerned and their line manager.
In some cases, the work itself may have to change, particularly if this was the root cause of the illness in the first place. Jill Miller, research adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says it could be a case of lightening the load, at least initially, or helping individuals with particular parts of their job which they find most challenging.
“Stress is the reaction you have to being under excessive pressure,” she says. “So do they need help in prioritising or setting goals, or more training in a particular area?” She also suggests appointing a mentor who isn’t their line manager for individuals to talk to, without worrying about whether this will reflect on their ability to do the job. “Sometimes it’s the manager that’s the issue,” Dr Miller adds.
Employers need to think about longer-term strategies to help counter stress and other mental health issues in the wider workforce, says Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP Healthcare. “Employers should not just focus on the employee with the problem,” Dr Winwood says. “The employee’s issues may be signalling there are problems in the rest of the business, such as bullying or unrealistic expectations. Businesses should take this chance to address any warning signs and take action to prevent or reduce the levels of stress.”