Last reviewed 2 October 2020

A new research study has called on employers to take a more tailored approach to work-related mental health, with greater focus on individual needs as well as good communication and support, in planning the return to work of staff following absence due to poor mental health.

Researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands were commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) to conduct a study to gain a better understanding of individual variability in the return to work process for employees on sick leave due to mental health problems.

The study noted that some workers were able to return quicker than others, emphasising the need for more tailored approaches.

The researchers found that such attention to individual situations and conditions could not only help prevent mental health problems from becoming more severe in the first place but also help employees achieve a more sustainable return to the workplace.

The research also stressed the importance of giving hope and perspective to employees currently on sick leave with mental health problems as well as the value of frequent communication with the employer and more joined-up support from employers, co-workers, stakeholders and the wider community. This included tackling the stigma that can often be attached to mental health problems.

Nearly half of those missing from the workplace because of their mental health returned to work relatively quickly (within four to five months on average).

Faster return to work trajectories were found to include more employees with stress complaints and adjustment disorders, while slower trajectories featured more employees with burnout.

These findings suggest timely interventions may prevent the development of more severe mental health problems and long return to work trajectories.

Commenting on the research, IOSH Research Manager Mary Ogungbeje said, “These are useful findings and insights considering it’s estimated that, globally, 12.8 billion working days of productivity are lost due to anxiety and depression”.