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New research shows way to better, quicker returns to work after mental illness

A new research study into workers’ mental health problems has called on employers to take greater account of an individual’s needs when planning their return to work.

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

Having identified a range of trajectories that workers with mental health problems go through as part of their return to work - with some able to return quicker than others - the study emphasises the need for more tailored approaches.

Such attention to individual situations and conditions, the research suggests, could not only help prevent mental health problems from becoming more severe but also help employees achieve a more sustainable return to the workplace.

“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,” said IOSH Research Manager Mary Ogungbeje.

“With the costs to society of absenteeism, presenteeism and unemployment due to mental health problems, this attempts to get a better understanding of individual variations and the return to work process.

“The imperative to better understand the individual needs of those returning to work after experiencing mental health problems is likely to get even sharper focus over the coming weeks and months, of course, as employees worldwide re-enter the workplace after coronavirus lockdown,” she added.

“Many of these workers will have been living with stress and social isolation as they worked at home, away from their ‘normal’ working environment.”

The research also stresses the importance of giving hope and perspective to employees currently on sick leave with mental health problems. The study suggests that individuals will benefit from more frequent communication with their employer and more joined-up support from employers, co-workers, stakeholders and the wider community. This includes 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 return to work relatively quickly (within four to five months on average), observes the study, with only a small chance of relapse during the return-to-work process. The differences as to how quickly the other half find their way back into employment are wide.

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.

A further finding showed that relapse in workers who’d returned to the workplace from a mental health problem was more likely to be influenced by work or psychosocial factors since trajectories, with or without relapse, did not vary with the type of mental health problem, the size of the organisation or demographical factors.

“With such significant societal costs associated with mental health problems, not to mention people’s quality of life, we need more insight into how employees who have these issues return to work and a greater understanding of the different ways individuals negotiate this process,” said Dr Margot Joosen, Senior Researcher at Tranzo, Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences and leader of the research study team.

Maitta Spronken, primary researcher on the study, added: “This study will promote awareness of individual differences in the return to work process and so stimulate reflection and discussion on how interventions can be tailored to meet the needs of the employee.”

Take a look at the full report and findings

  • Researchers from Tilburg University, Tranzo conducted a longitudinal retrospective study to obtain a better understanding of individual variability in the return to work process among employees on sick leave with mental health problems. This research, commissioned by IOSH, is available here.

* Chisholm, D et al (2016). Scaling-up treatment of depression and anxiety: A global return on investment analysis. The Lancet Psychiatry, 3(5), 415-424.

Mental health and wellbeing

At any one time, one in six workers experience mental health problems such as stress, depression and anxiety. IOSH publishes a range of free technical guidance to support and inform our members and motivate and influence health and safety stakeholders. We aim to help employers keep their workers well and healthy by making sure work isn’t carried out in conditions that lead to stress and mental health problems.

Returning Safely

IOSH has created an online hub of advice and resources to help build a safe path back to the workplace following the easing of Covid-19 lockdown measures. This focuses guidance on four main areas of Returning Safely – safe people, safe workplaces, safe systems and safe equipment.

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Jeremy Waterfield
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