How should I handle an employee being signed off work for mental health?

Our Spill therapists share some tips on how to support a team member who has been signed off work due to mental health and ease their return to work

One of my team members has been signed off for two weeks for mental health issues. I have reinforced my approval for them to take the leave as their health is a priority, but I'm not sure how else to handle it. Can I ask for specifics on what the issue is? Should I reach out during the next two weeks? And is there anything else I can do to support them?

First therapist's response

If your team member has been signed off for two weeks you should leave them alone to get the rest that has been recommended to them.

By telling them that you are pleased that they are prioritisng their mental health and taking the time away from work you are already doing a lot to underscore your support.

Depending on your relationship with them you might tell them that you will be available should they wish to contact you at any time but you do not expect them to do so. The last thing you want is them feeling anxious about whether they need to be in touch with you or not while they are supposed to be signed off.

Don’t ask for specifics on what the issue is because it may not be work-related and therefore none of your business.

Your time while they are off is best spent thinking about how you might handle a conversation with them on their return.

When they are back arrange a meeting and tell them that you want to make sure you do everything you can to support their recovery and to help them sustain good mental health. Ask them what if anything they feel you might be able to do to help within the context of work.

You can also ask directly if there is anything about work or the workplace that they feel is contributing to their mental health difficulties. If there is, create a plan in conjunction with them to address it.

If they say it is not work-related don’t be intrusive and avoid making suggestions if they share with you any matters that have nothing to do with work because that is not your area of expertise.  Do ask if they are getting any help and if there is anything you can do to facilitate such help. Signposting towards Spill being the obvious option.

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Second therapist's response

It sounds like you’re a compassionate manager who is aware of other people’s boundaries. If you’re not sure what your employee needs at this time,  just ask, e.g. “What do you need from me at this time?”. They may want more input from you or they may actually choose less. We all move through distress in different ways so it’s important to check out someone’s needs rather than assume them.

Check out with them what’s OK/not OK. Whatever they request, honour it. Some people are very private or compartmentalised so won’t want to discuss personal matters with work colleagues; others will find it a comfort there is someone to chat to.

With regards to how much you enquire about, have a think about your own boundaries and how much you can handle hearing. You may yourself be full of emotion right now so a deep conversation may not be possible for you, but if you have capacity to hold space for this person then that is a lovely thing to offer, just check it out with them first - “I am very happy to listen and chat about what you are going through at the moment. Would you like me to ask about it or would you rather I didn’t?” In a nutshell, just ask them what they need.

Other ways to support your employee:        

Listen.This may be a very scary time for them. This may be the first time they have experienced poor mental health and may be struggling with this different way of being in the world and just need someone to see and hear what they’re experiencing. Listen, don’t fix.

If they are off work for a substantial amount of time, you may arrange a meeting with them to discuss getting them back into work (e.g. a phased return).

Consider any reasonable adjustments you can make to support their return (e.g. are the performance expectations realistic given their current health? If they feel too high, this may in itself cause more distress and hamper their capability).

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Third therapist's response

What you can ask:

If someone is off work for more than a week you need a fit note from their doctor. You should check any company guidance around how sickness in general is handled at your organisation. Employees are not obliged to say why they are off work, but it may be in their interests to do so if work is contributing to their health issue. You may choose to ask for more details, but it is important to accept your employee’s boundaries.

What to do about contact:

There is nothing to stop you from contacting your employee while they are off work. Contact may make the employee feel that you care but it is important that the employee does not feel harassed or pressured to return to work. You may wish to agree with the employee when any contact will occur and the nature and format of these interactions.

Further help:

When the employee is returning to work it is your responsibility to assess the employee’s needs in the workplace. You can ask them what they need to enable their return and check if the GP has made any recommendations. Things that may help the employee are reduced hours, more breaks, or a smaller workload but this will depend entirely on the individual.

You can suggest that the employee access other workplace resources you are aware of.

Have regular check-ins with your employee when they return to work so you can monitor how things are going and make changes as required.

I hope this helps you.

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