How to help an employee return to work after a depressive episode

I’ve previously written about how employees can often work through depression and what an employer can keep an eye out for in regard to signs and symptoms. But what can an employer do if an employee has gone on a disability leave to seek treatment for a serious bout of depression?

Have a plan — Work to find a return-to-work date that makes sense for both employee and employer and develop a clear description of duties and responsibilities upon the employee’s return. It’s important to include the mental health experts at your disability carrier whenever possible — they spend their days helping employees get back to work and can be an invaluable resource and help ensure the return is successful.

Communicate — For those who have not struggled with depression, it can feel like a daunting task to understand those who have. It’s easy to be too afraid of saying the wrong thing or feeling as though you might be prying, and thus not saying anything at all.

One of the challenges faced by those returning to work is coming to terms with the absence and facing what they fear is the stigma of mental illness. This can be a beneficial time to involve your employee assistance program (EAP), if available, to help counsel you on how to broach the topic.

It’s important to not wait until the day an employee comes back to work to start the communication process. Many employees on disability leave don’t hear from their employer in anything other than an official capacity (letters from HR regarding benefits, etc). Depression often robs people of their sense of self-worth, and they withdraw. Simply communicating concern and the desire to help the employee back to work can be very meaningful to someone on leave.

Find accommodations that fit — Workplaces are as varied as the people who work there — and finding accommodations that fit with the particular demands of a job can be challenging. The fact that an employee is able to return to work doesn’t necessarily mean all the complex symptoms of his or her depression have been resolved. Many people struggle with diminished memory, attention and tolerance for stress for weeks or even months after their return. Keep this in mind as you assign tasks and set deadlines for the newly returned employee.

Returning to work following a significant episode of depression can feel like an impossible road to an employee, despite the fact that the structure and social activity of being on the job can speed improvement in depressive symptoms significantly. Through preparation, teamwork, flexibility and communication, employers can help valued workers smooth that road and return to healthier, more fully functioning lives.

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