6 steps to help manage mental health sickness absence

In this guest blog researchers Rebecca Peters and Dr. Joanna Yarker discuss the content of the free toolkit they're launching to help employers and employees navigate mental health sickness and the process of returning to work.

Mental ill-health affects one in six employees in the UK and mental health sickness absence is one of the most common reasons for absence (Council for Work and Health, 2014). Having just one person off work due to mental health illness can cost a business between £1,205 and £1,560 per employee per year.

Managers and employees often find it difficult to talk about mental health – but communication is absolutely key to a successful return to work when an employee is off work.

What can I do as an employer? I don’t want to make things worse…

The way an employee is treated during their absence and their initial return has a major impact on their likelihood of returning to work. On hearing that an employee has stress, anxiety or depression, many employers/managers have the initial reaction - 'I feel out of my depth', or 'I don’t know what to do…' But there are simple ways of communicating which can help the situation.

  • Contact the employee to let them know you are thinking of them - Send them a note/text/flowers, something meaningful to them.
  • Check in to see how they are - Make sure that any communication at this stage is about the employee and their health rather than when they are coming back.
  • Encourage the employee to look after themselves and get better - Sitting at home on their own is unlikely to help them get better. Give them permission to do things that will help – these are often the kinds of things that you get time to do on holiday, (like going for a walk, taking an exercise class or meeting a friend for lunch) which will help them during their absence and their preparation for returning to work.
  • When ready, encourage them to think about returning to work - It does not have to be all or nothing. More often than not, people find it helpful to return in a gradual way – so think about what that might look like before they come in.

There is light at the end of the tunnel…in the form of a free six-step toolkit

Developed by a team from Kingston University, Loughborough University and Affinity Health at Work, the return to work toolkit draws on the latest research in employee mental health.

The toolkit contains a great deal of useful information, including:

  • Employee and employer guides - The guides provide practical tools for both employees and employers. Each guide includes a version of advice the other has received to allow the process to be as transparent and clear as possible for both parties. Having mirrored guidance allows each of the parties to consider the other person’s perspective and give some context to what they are dealing with.
  • Conversation frameworks - A practical tool which provides a conversational framework for how to approach the first return to work meeting, which can feel overwhelming and daunting. This can be used as a conversational prompt and also allows both parties to know what to expect and prepare for the meeting.
  • A one-pager quick view on the six steps of the toolkit - This resource provides a quick overview of the six-step toolkit, detailing what will happen at each stage for both the employee and employer.
  • Examples of dos & don’ts case study vignettes - Quick and brief examples of what to say and what not to say at each stage for the employee and employer.
  • Checklists and self-led activities - Throughout the toolkit there are checklists, email/letter templates and exercises to help improve communication throughout absence and upon return.

Opportunity to help shape the tools

We are developing the toolkit using the latest evidence from academic research and practice. We're keen to understand how the toolkit is used, what is useful (and what is not!), and whether it helps employees return to work successfully. We will be running trials of the toolkit with organisations and asking those who are able to to help with the dissemination of the toolkit.

Would you be interested in supporting our evaluation?

Are you an SME owner/manager/employer? Could you use the toolkit if your employees are absent from work?


Could you help us disseminate our toolkit through newsletters, blogs, online hubs to introduce others to the toolkit?

If you would be interested in taking part and would like further information on the project please do not hesitate to contact us: Rebecca Peters on [email protected] or Joanna Yarker on [email protected]