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Helping Employees with Mental Health Issues Get Back to Work

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Oct 20th 2015

Have you ever had to miss work for an extended period of time due to a physical challenge? Perhaps you needed emergency surgery or experienced a serious illness with long-term repercussions.

employee meeting at workWhen you returned to work, I'll bet your employer took steps to accommodate your needs and facilitate a smooth transition back to your normal responsibilities. Most likely, this was due to the company's adherence to "return-to-work" policies.

While it's great that most organizations have such policies, they usually only apply to physical challenges and do not recognize mental health setbacks. Part of this glaring omission is due to our society's lack of recognition of mental health problems as legitimate health issues. Another part is due to individual companies feeling uncomfortable about addressing employees' mental health issues or unsure of what kinds of policies are needed. In response, they do nothing.

As a result, employees trying to get back to work after a mental health setback often face obstacles to their reintegration and progress. Lost work days and low productivity are common by-products of this problem, which only increases costs to companies. It's in the best interest of employers to develop return-to-work policies that address the unique needs of employees who have faced mental health challenges.

Here are some ideas regarding how to do that:

  • Invite the employee to discuss what he or she needs to aid in a smooth transition back to work. Oftentimes, employers are reluctant to approach the employee out of discomfort, but there's no way to make sure the employee has what he or she needs without asking. Keep the conversation focused on work items and responsibilities.
  • Respect the employee's privacy. Don't discuss the person's mental health diagnosis or challenges with anyone who does not need to know and without the person's permission.
  • Encourage the employee to talk to his or her doctor about what kinds of accommodations may be needed, such as modified work responsibilities, flexible work hours or a quieter environment. If the doctor can provide a clear list of items, this will more easily facilitate your conversation.
  • Be knowledgeable about regulations enforced by the Americans with Disabilities Act (see your human resources department for more information). According to the ADA, persons with disabilities include those with mental disorders.
  • Be vigilant to teasing, backlash, or similar unkind behaviors by other employees toward the employee who is integrating back to work. Manage these behaviors immediately.
  • Check in with the employee periodically to ensure that his or her needs are being met, with the understanding that adjustments over time may be necessary. By showing compassion and understanding early on, the person's readjustment is more likely to go smoothly.


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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