Work absences for mental health reasons occur as commonly as those for physical health conditions.
Despite this, many employers still lack experience in managing mental health-related illness in the workplace, or are unsure how to broach return-to-work planning for employees dealing with mental ill health. Stigma remains a factor in some workforces that can further cloud this process.
But managed well, integrating mental health considerations into workplace practices can be extremely rewarding for both employer and employee.
When planning work inclusion for employees dealing with mental health issues, not many employers would immediately think about general practitioners (GPs).
Yet GPs are a relatively untapped resource who can assist in this process. They can help guide employers to find the best way to accommodate mental health concerns in the workplace, and can provide information on creating a mental health friendly workplace.
As a GP consultant based at the Black Dog Institute, I’ve recognised a few GP insights that employers can draw on when considering their own workplace policies and procedures on mental health.
1. Respond to disclosure with compassion and support
People often express their fears to GPs that disclosing a mental health condition will be career-limiting or possibly career-ending. Even in organisations that are open about mental health, there is often a sentiment (true or not) that reality will not align with the rhetoric.
In some cases, employees may have witnessed instances where disclosure had proved detrimental for colleagues in similar circumstances. Creating an environment where talking openly about mental health is met with a compassionate and supportive response is essential for effective collaboration.
2. Treat all communication confidentially
It goes without saying that as with any medical issue in the workplace, confidentiality is both mandatory and necessary for a successful partnership between the employer and affected employee. Safe and productive conversations won’t be possible if the employee feels their condition will be openly discussed with others.
To build trust and assurance, it is essential that employers maintain strict confidentiality and respect the limits of the information that can be made available by the employee’s treating GP.
3. Find the right support people
An employee might feel that a close colleague in the business is better placed to facilitate conversations about their return to work, rather than having to deal with managers directly.
Assigning a key contact person (KCP) in the workplace is a useful way to encourage engagement with the employee at what is often a difficult time. This KCP should ideally have undergone additional training in workplace mental health to ensure they have the knowledge, confidence and skills to partner with the employee and GP to create an individualised work plan. Arrange for their involvement as soon as practical.
4. Liaise often with the employee’s GP
Where possible, obtaining permission to deal directly with the employee’s GP can also streamline a return to work. The GP does not need to share any specific details of the person’s mental health, but can give advice on the ways in which the nature of the work itself might be impacting the condition.
Providing GPs with a detailed outline of the employee’s role, specific tasks and work settings will assist them in understanding how to adapt the employee’s current state of health to their unique context. By taking an active role, GPs can also recommend some helpful workplace adjustments that might be necessary to allow a return to work as soon as practical.
5. Work participation is the ultimate goal
There may be times when a GP determines that a work absence is essential for an employee’s recovery. This decision is made on an individual, case-by-case basis depending on the nature and severity of the condition, the specific characteristics of the workplace and the work itself.
If the condition allows, the preferred outcome is always to keep people engaged with their workplace. Many studies have pointed to a raft of benefits associated with work, including higher levels of social connectedness, self-esteem and a sense of purpose.
Participation in the workforce is better than prolonged absence. Regular reviews of the employee’s progress will be necessary as there may be fluctuations until their full recovery.
It’s important to establish a culture of trust among employees that their mental health concerns will be managed with the same compassion and respect as a physical condition. How well a workplace can partner with the GP in creating appropriate work adjustments is also a crucial factor. Ideally, the best outcomes are achieved when employers actively assist employees and their health providers to negotiate a safe way to continue working together.