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18 Supporting return to work

Returning to work is an important part of the recovery process. It is your role to support employees who are off work or returning to work. This is about having good people management skills including effective communication, work design, planning, flexibility in making changes and a focus on outcomes to support ability to work—you don’t need to be an expert in mental health.

The nature of the job, the individual’s experience in the workplace, the response of employers, and information and views from general practitioners, family and friends all influence the success of the recovery.1

Australian Government employers have specific return to work obligations under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRC Act) including:

  1. taking all reasonably practicable steps to provide an injured employee with suitable employment or to assist the employee to find such employment; and
  2. performing rehabilitation functions delegated to its officers or employees by the rehabilitation authority

Section 3, Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988

Why it matters

There is compelling evidence that work is generally good for health and well-being. Long term work absence, disability and unemployment can have a negative impact on health and well-being. There is strong evidence that work is the most effective means to improve the well-being of individuals, their families and communities.2

‘For an employee experiencing or recovering from depression or anxiety, participation in the workplace may be a valuable part of the recovery process and can have a significant impact on the person’s emotional, social and physical well-being. Even if the employee is on limited hours or duties, it is important to recognise the contribution the person is making and ensure he/she feels part of the team. There are benefits for the business in keeping employees connected to the workplace. These include the retention of experienced and skilled staff, avoiding costs associated with re-training or hiring new employees and, above all, building a workplace culture that demonstrates to all employees that they are cared for and valued.’3

Managers have a key role in providing a supportive workplace and ensuring open communication in the return to work process. Managers also perform the crucial tasks of providing suitable employment for the employee’s return to work and preventing the workplace exacerbating mental health conditions.4

How it’s done

Build positive relationships. The culture of the workplace and the attitudes and behaviours of managers and colleagues are critical. It is important to remove stigma about mental health and its impact on work, as actual or perceived stigma from colleagues may hinder the return to work.

Stay in touch with the employee while they are off work. This will help the employee feel connected to the workplace and feel a valued team member. Your agency should have a policy for contacting absent employees or their carer if they are too unwell.

Offer support and have a conversation with your employee about what support they need from the workplace to return to work successfully. This might include support from colleagues and managers, adjustments to the work and flexible work options. Focus on what the employee can do, not what they cannot do, and recognise the employee’s existing skills, experience and capabilities.

Assess any rehabilitation and return to work needs and develop a return to work plan. Prepare the plan in collaboration with the employee and their treating medical practitioner (making sure you have written permission to contact the practitioner). Comcare has specific advice and assistance on return to work planning and injury management on their website www.comcare.gov.au.

Address the causes of harm if there are particular work design and management factors that contributed to the employee’s mental ill health or parts of the work that could aggravate their mental health condition. This might include adjustments to the work arrangements, such as hours of work, or adjustments to the type of work or the way the work is performed.

Set realistic goals and outcomes with clear expectations that are results based and set out the steps for achieving a successful return to work.5 Review the return to work plan on a regular basis and be prepared to modify the plan as needed.

Monitor the return to work and check in with the employee frequently. This will help you to identify if any other adjustments need to be made to help the employee to stay at work.

Remember to keep all information private and confidential and only tell others with the employee’s permission. However, it is also important to keep other team members informed of the return to work process and any changes. Talk with the employee who is returning to work to ask them what they would like their colleagues to be told.

‘Employees who have a successful return to work have supportive management. Management makes it known to the employee that they care what is happening to them. It’s human nature that we want acknowledgment, that we’re a part of a team, and that our efforts at work are appreciated. Something simple such as a phone call from someone inquiring on how they are and if there is anything that the workplace can do…’
Dr Brenda Tait, Advisory Group for Comcare’s Centre of Excellence in Mental Health and Well-being at Work. www.comcare.gov.au

Barriers to returning to work

There are many factors which make it difficult for an employee to return to work such as:

  • Stigma associated with depression/anxiety – and lack of knowledge and understanding about its impact on work performance
  • Suspicion about the severity of the employee’s depression/ anxiety (e.g. other team members suggesting that the employee is using depression/anxiety as an excuse to ‘get out’ of work)
  • Perceived or actual lack of return to work planning or support from employer
  • Fear that colleagues may find out about the diagnosis
  • Reduced self-confidence associated with the episode of depression/anxiety
  • Uncertainty about the type of assistance managers or supervisors will provide
  • Fear of discrimination and the impact on future career prospects
  • Concerns that work related contributors or causes of stress, anxiety and depression have not been reported or addressed.

Source: Beyondblue. Supporting the return to work of employees with depression or anxiety. www.beyondblue.org.au

Useful tools

  • For information on managing return to work when there is a worker’s compensation claim, employers have responsibilities under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRC Act). Please see the following Comcare documents:
  • beyondblue – Supporting the return to work of employees with depression or anxiety factsheet www.beyondblue.org.au
  • Return to work support and information for employees with mental health problems (and their employers): www.returntowork.net.au

Other relevant information sheets:


1 Bandura, A 1997, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, New York, W.H. Freeman & Company; and Fear, W 2007, ‘Return to work revisited’, The Psychologist, vol. 22, no. 6, pp. 502-503.

2 Marmot, M 2005,’ Social determinants of health inequalities’, Lancet, vol. 365, pp. 1099-104; and Marmot, M & Wilkinson, R (eds) 2003, Social determinants of health: The solid facts, 2nd edn, World Health Organisation, Copenhagen, pp. 18-21.

3 beyondblue. Supporting the return to work of employees with depression or anxiety: advice for managers, viewed 17 April 2013.

4 Comcare 2008, Return to Work: key steps for supervisors and line managers, Comcare, Canberra.

5 Comcare 2012, Returning to Work – Information for Employers, Comcare, Canberra, p. 4.

Last reviewed: 
13 June 2018