The 3 Cs of return-to-work communication

A common misconception about a workplace accommodation is that it involves providing an employee with a new chair or an ergonomic keyboard. This simply is not the case, as many return-to-work or stay-at-work efforts involve a mental health need. In fact, I recently assisted a 34-year-old employee return to work after a short-term disability leave prompted by depression and anxiety.

According to Mental Health America, “… depression is as costly as heart disease […] to the U.S. economy, costing over $51 billion in absenteeism from work and lost productivity and $26 billion in direct treatment costs.”1

The employee I assisted entirely over the phone was struggling with depression and anxiety resulting from situations in both her personal and professional lives. This single mother found herself on short-term disability with a fear of returning to work because she felt overwhelmed with her job responsibilities, which didn’t pair well with her extremely low self-esteem.

We resolved her issues and ensured she returned to work by focusing on strong communication. If you ever face a similar situation, here are the 3 Cs of return-to-work communication:

Coach the employee
Although there was a large physical distance between us, I worked diligently to establish a close relationship with this employee. During our many phone calls, I educated her about returning to work, role-played conversations she might have with her employer and provided emotional support. In the end, she was empowered to not only return to work but also stay at work.

Consult the healthcare provider
By working in conjunction with her therapist, I was able to better identify her limitations and specific restrictions. This can be a difficult task, especially depending on the healthcare provider’s understanding of what a workplace consultant is trying to accomplish. To resolve the employee’s issue, I was even prepared to go as far as meeting in person with her therapist to get the right information. These proactive efforts and persistence paid off — the doctor’s list of limitations and restrictions helped facilitate the return to work with the employer.

Connect with the employer
One reason the employee was anxious about work was because she felt overwhelmed with tasks she wasn’t prepared to handle. To make her feel more at ease, I worked with the employer to define clear, specific job responsibilities. This minimized her anxiety and helped her successfully return to work.

This example of a mental health accommodation is not an isolated incident; and with 18.8 million American adults (9.5% of the adult population) [suffering] from a depressive illness2 during any given year, I doubt it will be my last.


1Greenberg PE, Kessler RC, Birnbaum HG et al. The Economic Burden of Depression in the United States: How Did It Change Between 1990 and 2000? J Clin Psychiatry. 2003;64(12):1465-1475.

2Valenstein M, Vijan S, Zeber JE, Boehm K, Buttar A. The cost-utility of screening for depression in primary care. Ann Intern Med 2001;134(5):345-360.

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