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Supervisors’ Support for Sustainable Return to Work

Disability Management, Human Resources, Leadership, Mental Health, Return-to-Work

Long-term sickness absence due to stress, anxiety and depression is costly for society, organizations, and workers themselves. Focus has primarily been on supporting workers’ return; however, workers need supervisors’ support to readjust to work for an extended period after return to work. Supervisors may use these five strategies to support workers staying and thriving at work. 

  1. Workload management 

Supervisors play a crucial role in supporting returned workers manage their workloads. Upon return supervisors should agree with workers which responsibilities workers should take on and what may be a reasonable workload. It is important that supervisor and the returned worker review these responsibilities and only gradually increase workload as the worker feels ready. Supervisors should check in with workers to ensure they stick to agreed work tasks.  

  1. Flexible work hours 

Returned workers often experience that their mental health fluctuates; they may feel fine one day only to relapse the next. Supervisors may allow workers to leave early if the worker is struggling or come to work later in the day. Such flexibility will allow workers to attend counselling or exercise classes. Workers may also find its useful to be able to take leave at short notice to recover. 

  1. Flexible work location 

Returned workers may feel overwhelmed and may benefit from spatial time outs. Such time outs can be supervisors allowing workers to work from home or creating a safe space in the workplace that workers can withdraw to.   

  1. Conversations about mental health and work 

Supervisors should encourage open and honest communication about returned workers’ needs and follow-up on workers’ return. These conversations can take place in regular scheduled meetings;, however, informal ongoing checking in is also important, especially if the returned worker has been in a challenging situation, e.g., a difficult meeting. It is crucial that conversations are tailored to the individual worker’s needs. 

  1. Long-term support

To ensure sustainable return to work, the readjustment to work may take months or even years. Supervisors play a key role in offering continual support. Support includes ongoing reviews of the action plans made when the worker first returned to work. It also involved a gradual increase in work tasks in dialogue with the returned worker. 

 

Written by Karina Nielsen, University of Sheffield, UK 

Dr. Karina Nielsen is a Full Professor of Work Psychology and Director of the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield, UK. Karina specializes in organizational interventions, i.e. how we can foster employee health and wellbeing through changing the way work is organized, designed and managed. Another area of expertise is sustainable return to work, how we can support workers with common mental disorders stay and thrive at work after long-term sickness absence. Key to Karina’s research is the IGLOo framework, which suggests that in order to develop healthy organizations it is necessary to build resources at the individual, group, leader and organizational levels. 

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