Returning from a mental health leave

Sarah was drowning in stress.

A long and difficult divorce meant that expensive legal bills were piling up, leaving her financially strapped. She felt pressure to help support her young adult children, who were experiencing health problems. There was also pressure at work.

“I was working overtime on a very demanding and critically ill unit that required frequent rounds,” explains Sarah*, a Registered Nurse. 

“I was mentally drained from the stress at work and home. I was just worn down physically and emotionally.”

Sarah went on a mental health leave. She found a colleague’s words comforting and caring.

“She told me to take the time I needed to get better,” says Sarah. “Those were the kindest words.”

In any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem. Depending on the severity and what’s happening in a person’s life—personal issues, physical health problems or stress at work—employees may need to go on a mental health leave. 

 About 500,000 Canadian employees are unable to work every week due to mental health problems, says Lori Botter of Homewood Health.

“Employers invest in disability management programs to help employees get back to work when it is safe for them to do so,” says Lori. “Open communication and designing a clear return-to-work plan are critical for long-term success.”

Sarah is on medication and is going to counselling with the goal of returning to her nursing career.

When someone has a mental illness, they may find it beneficial to use a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). It’s a set of tools that help a person understand their triggers and provide strategies to maintain wellness. Doing this before returning to work may help, advises Scott Aylwin, Senior Director of Addiction and Mental Health for Covenant Health.

“A WRAP is essentially an information package that a person generates and can be shared with those around them. An employee could potentially share it with their manager or even their team. It explains their issue, what signs colleagues might see when the individual is struggling, steps to take to assist them, emergency contacts, and so on. It’s a bold step to share this information at work, but it can be very effective.”

 Returning to work can be a very good thing

Scott emphasizes that staff members are never required to disclose the medical reasons they’ve been off work. However, people may want to consider having a confidential conversation with their manager about what’s needed to make a successful transition back to work.

And returning to work can be a very good thing for people. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, work is often a very positive experience for people recovering from mental illness. The development of social networks and a sense of accomplishment and purpose, in addition to a salary, make employment a key part of many people’s recovery.

Before going on leave, Sarah worked with other people who returned from mental health leaves. She and her colleagues followed their personalized return-to-work plans and helped ease the employee back into their job, making the transition back to work positive.

“I always made sure to welcome them back and tried to fill them in on any changes that occurred since they left,” says Sarah. “We typically gave them the easier patients and reassured them that there was no such thing as a ‘dumb’ question to promote open communication and teamwork.”    

Scott, Lori and Sarah agree that empathy goes a long way when someone is going through difficult times. 

Tips to help someone returning to work

Check in with the person
While the need to respect someone’s privacy is important, you can still let someone know you care without asking for details about their absence. Welcome them back, indicate you’re happy to see them and let them know you’re available, with statements such as:

  • “How are you doing?”
  • “If you need to talk to someone, I am here.”
  • “Let me know if I can help with anything that might make it easier to get through this.”

“I don’t think you can ever go wrong by just checking in on someone and asking how they’re doing,” says Scott. “It’s important to keep an eye out for them and for everyone on your team.”

Be inclusive
Depending on your relationship, you can invite your co-worker who is on leave to special team events or celebrations while they are off. Be sure to look for opportunities to involve them when they’ve returned.

“We all walk around sharing our ‘headlines’ with the world but keep our back story to ourselves,” says Scott. “When someone goes on leave or comes back to work after being away, we need to avoid being judgmental. It’s important to be warm and welcoming.”

Mental illness is a medical issue
Scott says mental health issues can affect the way someone thinks about themselves, relates to others and interacts with the world around them. These are medical issues.

  • Like any other medical illnesses, mental illnesses are sometimes chronic and sometimes episodic in nature. That means people can have periods when they are well and periods when they are unwell and overall functioning is reduced. Show compassion during the difficult times.
  • Mental illnesses are more likely to appear when an individual feels stressed. If you notice a colleague is struggling to complete a task, check in on them and ask whether you can assist.

Managers need to build up employees
“People who experience a mental illness may doubt their abilities upon returning to work,” says Lori. “They may also have a hard time concentrating, learning and making decisions.”

For employees returning from leave, praise goes a long way. As a manager, recognize your employee’s good work and provide constructive feedback to correct behaviours. 

As a manager, you may not have any information why an employee went on leave. Try to comply with the return-to-work plan and work with your employee to make it an easier transition back to work.

“When people are off work for surgery, for example, everyone usually knows about it, and there’s a welcome-back card and a slap on the back. But when people are off for a mental health issue, they show up back at work and nobody says a word,” explains Scott. “Sometimes it’s because the returning staff doesn’t want to disclose why they were off, and sometimes it’s because others don’t really know what to say."

*Name has been changed.

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