8th October 2020

Returning to work in 6 simple steps: a toolkit for managers and employees

8th August, 2018

Joanna Yarker & Rebecca Peters

Mental ill-health is one of the most common reasons of short and long-term sickness absence, affecting one in six employees in the UK. However, studies have shown that the return to work process falls short too often with up to 20% of returning employees experiencing relapse or subsequently leaving work.

So, what is the best way to support employees who become unwell and need time off due to mental ill-health? Would your organisation’s managers know what to do to support the employee back to work? Many managers and employers find it difficult to know how best to support a colleague with mental ill-health. Our free online toolkit aims to give businesses the tools and know how so that managers feel equipped to deal with this type of absence and employees know how best to focus on getting better and eventually get back to work.

From the research, we know that it is vital to have early and effective interventions in order to support employees to get back to work and help them stay at work. However, from speaking with managers and employers, we know that many are unsure of what to do or what to say when it comes to mental health sickness absence. A common response from managers is that they feel out of their depth or worried about making things worse. As talking about mental health can be difficult, often people choose to stay silent in fear that they might say the wrong thing. The line manager is often the first point of contact for an employee when they are unwell and when they return, so it is important that they have the skills and knowledge to support returning employees.

As a starting point, here are six steps (which are expanded on in our toolkit) to help managers navigate mental health sickness absence and the return to work process:

1.    Start communication early on while the employee is off work

Communication in the early stages of absence can seem quite formal for example, requesting a fit note and confirming the sickness absence policy, which may lead the employee to feel that there are no feelings of genuine care. But talking early on can help the employee feel valued. Managers need to make sure that any communication at this stage is focused around the employee and their health and not about when they are coming back to work. If the line manager doesn’t have a good relationship with the employee, it may be more appropriate to ask a colleague to check in with them instead.

2.    Develop knowledge and skills

Managing an absent or returning employee can be challenging, especially when there are so many pressures on line managers’ time. Managers need to be encouraged to consider whether they have the skills to support the returning employee: our research, supported by BOHRF and CIPD, has identified a number of manager competencies that have been found to be effective for supporting returning employees. If work played a role in the employees’ absence, it is important for the manager to consider how the rest of the team are coping and review how their work is designed and managed as well.

3.    Maintain communication while the employee is off

Research has shown that maintaining contact throughout the time that the employee is off can improve the employees’ likelihood of returning to work. It can support a sense of belonging and help relieve the anxiety of returning to work for the employee, and can help the employer and manager with work planning. It is helpful to agree up front how often (e.g. once every month) and how (e.g. email/ phone) communication will happen.

4.    Preparing for their return to work

Employees often resume their full workload as soon as they return, and this leads to further problems and the possibility of the employee relapsing. Instead, a gradual return allows the employee to build their confidence back up in the role, before going back to their previous workload. Before the employee returns, it can be useful for a manager to think through how the employee’s role could be adjusted in the short term to make the first few days/weeks easier to manage. An informal coffee or phone call before the first day back may help to lessen the employee’s anxiety about their first day and returning to work. Managers can also start to think ahead to the return to work conversation – do they know what to say and how to say it? If formal training is not available, perhaps a practice role-play can be helpful to prepare them. Tips on how to prepare for the return to work conversation are included in the toolkit.

5.    Return to work conversation- when they are back

Setting aside time for a return to work conversation is important so that managers and employees can develop a plan to make sure that the return is an effective one. Do managers have the skills, or even the office space, to make the most of this conversation? Do employees know when and where it will take place and what to expect? Our toolkit provides a conversation guide to help both manager and employee with this conversation.

6.    Keeping healthy and productive at work

Some people who experience mental ill-health only experience it once. However, it is important to maintain an open dialogue and agree a plan for regular check-ins. Wellness Recovery Action Planscan be helpful for all team members, not just the returning employee; and regular reviews of the way work is designed and managed can help to give employees the best chance of staying healthy and productive at work.

In addition, managers can support all employees by knowing a bit about mental health and the potential signs, signals and triggers. Everyone’s experience of mental health is slightly different, but the key thing for line managers to look out for is changes in behavior, attitudes and mood. If a manager notices uncharacteristic behavior in their employees, such as difficulty managing workload, coming in late, stopping going to the gym or taking lunch, or the way they interact with the rest of the team, it is time to check in and see if they are OK.

The toolkit

A team of researchers at Kingston University, Loughborough University and Affinity Health at Work have developed a free-to-access toolkit to help employees and employers navigate through the return to work process following a mental health sickness absence. The toolkit was launched earlier this year and is now being evaluated until the end of the year.

It contains two self-led guides, one for managers and one for employees, as well as other useful tools such as templates, checklists, conversational guides, tips and advice.

Interested in getting involved?As we are now evaluating the toolkit, we are currently working with employers who wish to trial it. If you are interested in using the toolkit and getting involved with the trials or would like to give your feedback, please contact Rebecca on  

If you are a small to medium business we would also like to hear from you!We want to know how you think the toolkit would best work within a small to medium business so get in contact with us!

Watch our animation at:  or visit the toolkit at

Joanna Yarker & Rebecca Peters

Dr Joanna Yarker is Associate Professor, Kingston Business School and Director, Affinity Health at Work. Joanna divides her time between Affinity Health at Work, a niche consultancy specialising in health and wellbeing at work, and Kingston Business School, where she works as an Associate Professor, leading the Masters and Professional Doctorate programmes in Occupational and Business Psychology. She is passionate about understanding what we can do to foster fulfilling, healthy and productive work, particularly under times of challenge such as when individuals are unwell or under pressure.

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