The working world can be a pitiless one, as competition in the marketplace can put significant pressures on employees. Relentless deadlines, shrinking resources and shifting priorities all take their toll on employees’ well-being and mental health. In my home country of Belgium, more than two thirds (66.4%) of individuals on disability for psychological reasons had cases related to depression or burn-out.

These worrisome statistics reflect broader trends across OECD countries, where nearly half (47.6%) of workers with mental-health problems have been absent from the office in the past year, compared to just over 30% of those without such issues.

Bringing returning employees (gently) back into the fold

Studies show that employees who return to work after a mental health-related absence have a high risk of relapse, particularly within the first year. For instance, 90% of relapses occur within three years, with significant numbers occurring within the first 12 months.

A successful reintegration strategy not only helps employees return to their roles but also ensures they remain engaged and productive in the long term. For firms, this involves creating a supportive environment that addresses both the immediate needs of the returning employee and the ongoing challenges they may face.

Reintegration: not just between employees and employers

Successful reintegration depends on many factors, but one is crucial yet often overlooked: the dynamics between a returning employee and his or her colleagues.

For the returning worker to be successfully reintegrated, it’s essential for her or his coworkers to understand the importance of their providing support. This understanding is not easy to obtain, because the return-to-work process often involves measures that may appear as “privileges” to others. Often, returning employees initially work part-time, have tailored work arrangements, and stressful or demanding tasks are limited. If all this happens after a long period of absence – which often increases the pressure on remaining colleagues – it immediately becomes clear that open communication about the returning employee’s reintegration with the whole team is vital.

innerself subscribe graphic

A key aspect is managing expectations: if it is unclear to the team what they can and can’t expect from the returning colleague in each stage of the reintegration, friction can result. This can be exacerbated when the returning colleague and employer seek – for good reasons – to respect the work limits that have been set for the reintegration.

That’s why it’s very important to communicate the reasons behind these measures to the team all the while respecting medical privacy. Managers ought to frame these adjustments as necessary for the long-term health and productivity of the employee and the organisation, which ultimately benefits all involved.

This also requires clear communication about the returning employee’s capabilities and limitations. Colleagues should be informed about the expected pace of reintegration and the importance of supporting their peer. Also think about the best process for work assignments: after an absence caused by stress, it’s often wise to have tasks delegated by the employee’s direct supervisor rather than making him or her available to all team members.

Part of an overarching reintegration policy

Many companies still don’t have well-developed and sustainable reintegration policies. My advice is a good starting point and will work even better as part of the overarching and taboo-lifting absenteeism policy outlined below:

Develop an overall supportive culture: cultivate a workplace culture that values mental health and recognises the import – ance of supporting colleagues returning from mental health–related absences.

Provide training: Help managers and team members learn the required skills. These can include recognising signs of menta-l-health issues, providing support, and fostering an inclusive environment. Managers play a pivotal role, as their attitudes and actions can significantly influence the success of reintegration.

Promote open communication about individual needs: Transparency helps build trust and reduces stigma, particularly when – an employee temporarily leaves the workplace. After his or her return, regular meetings and feedback sessions during their reintegration help ensure that any issues are promptly addressed.

Implement flexible policies: Adapt policies to accommodate the needs of returning employees, such as flexible working ho – urs or gradual increases in workload. Tailored work arrangements help returning employees ease back into their roles without overwhelming them.

Leverage peer support: Colleagues who have gone through similar experiences can offer valuable insights and emotional su- pport, helping to normalise the challenges associated with returning to work after a mental health-related absence.

Strategic necessity

Sustainable reintegration is not only a matter of compassion but also a strategic necessity for employee retention and organisational resilience. By focusing on supportive colleague dynamics and addressing the unique challenges of reintegration, European company leaders and HR professionals can significantly enhance their retention efforts. Understanding and implementing effective reintegration strategies will lead to healthier workplaces, lower turnover rates, and ultimately, a more robust and committed workforce.

The responsibility for successful reintegration extends beyond the individual and their direct manager to the entire organisation. Creating a supportive, understanding, and flexible workplace environment is key to ensuring that employees not only return to work but thrive in their roles.

Lode Godderis, Professor in occupational medicine , KU Leuven

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Books Improving Attitude and Behavior from Amazon's Best Sellers list

"Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones"

by James Clear

In this book, James Clear presents a comprehensive guide to building good habits and breaking bad ones. The book includes practical advice and strategies for creating lasting behavior change, based on the latest research in psychology and neuroscience.

Click for more info or to order

"Unf*ck Your Brain: Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-Outs, and Triggers"

by Faith G. Harper, PhD, LPC-S, ACS, ACN

In this book, Dr. Faith Harper offers a guide to understanding and managing common emotional and behavioral issues, including anxiety, depression, and anger. The book includes information on the science behind these issues, as well as practical advice and exercises for coping and healing.

Click for more info or to order

"The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business"

by Charles Duhigg

In this book, Charles Duhigg explores the science of habit formation and how habits impact our lives, both personally and professionally. The book includes stories of individuals and organizations who have successfully changed their habits, as well as practical advice for creating lasting behavior change.

Click for more info or to order

"Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything"

by BJ Fogg

In this book, BJ Fogg presents a guide to creating lasting behavior change through small, incremental habits. The book includes practical advice and strategies for identifying and implementing tiny habits that can lead to big changes over time.

Click for more info or to order

"The 5 AM Club: Own Your Morning, Elevate Your Life"

by Robin Sharma

In this book, Robin Sharma presents a guide to maximizing your productivity and potential by starting your day early. The book includes practical advice and strategies for creating a morning routine that supports your goals and values, as well as inspiring stories of individuals who have transformed their lives through early rising.

Click for more info or to order