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A return to work program focuses on finding meaningful and suitable work for workers coming back to the workplace from injury or illness. Through collaboration, the goal of the program is to return the worker to their pre-injury or pre-illness job, where appropriate, and in a timely manner. The process is not about diagnosis, and medical confidentiality must be respected at all times.
The details of the overall return to work program should be communicated to all staff (ideally, before it is actually needed). This open communication makes sure that everyone understands their role and has clear expectations.
The guiding principles are very similar when planning for a return to work due to mental illness as it would be for a physical injury. The focus of the plan should be on the functional abilities of the worker, not the symptoms of the injury or illness, or the causes. You do not need to create a separate RTW program, but be sure your existing program will accommodate workers returning from mental illness related absences.
It’s important to create and foster a safe, supportive work environment. Such an environment can be created by focusing not just on physical hazards but also the psychosocial risk factors.
Note, however, that the emotions and experiences of the worker may be different from those that are away due to an injury. When workers are absent due to a mental illness, they may experience concerns about being a bother to others, rejection, isolation, and shame. They may also fear potential harassment and associated stigmas. During the planning stages, it should be discussed how the absence will be explained and what will be shared with the rest of the team.
A comprehensive return to work plan should involve the returning worker, manager, human resources, and the treating health care professional. Each party has a shared responsibility in the return to work plan.
Each RTW accommodation will be different. For each situation and depending on the length of time the worker has been away, some of the following steps will not be necessary.
Accommodations should be based on the current functional abilities of the worker. Discussing options is a cooperative process and involves the individual with input from their health care professional. Sharing completed job descriptions and assessments with the health care professional can be helpful in determining the best "fit to work" status. Recall that diagnosis or details of treatment do not need to be disclosed. Focus on current abilities and functionality as well as the needs of the organization. Create benchmarks and check-in dates. When discussing accommodations, if possible, ask what were some of the challenges before the absence and what could potentially be a challenge now that they are back at work.
Requests for accommodations should be made in good faith and every effort should be made to accept the request. However, it may not be possible for the employer to accommodate a request, and equally, not every request may be appropriate. It is important to work collaboratively to determine suitable work and accommodations for the individual, the situation, the team, and the workplace involved.
The website Mental Health Works provides sample workplans.
Examples of accommodations include:
As with other components of your workplace health and safety program, you should regularly review and evaluate your program to look for areas of improvement.