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Mental Health and Absenteeism

Looking out for your team members should be an absolute priority. When so many small business owners, team leaders and department heads are now receiving statements of fitness to work stating ‘stress at work’ or ‘personal stress’, this leaves them at a complete loss in terms of what they can or can’t say and do.

Just what is the best way to handle the situation?

Our best advice when it comes to a team member that’s been signed off with mental health related concerns is to follow the same process as you would when dealing with a team member who has broken their leg.

The quickest way to start to remove the stigma surrounding mental health is to start viewing it as an illness that you are not afraid to ask questions about.  If an employee has been signed off for a mental health-related issue and they don’t receive flowers (but know that they “should” because that’s what you would usually do as an employer), they are likely to feel even more removed and excluded from the workplace.  This can make it harder to reintegrate them later on and can lead to a situation where the employee simply doesn’t feel able to return to work at all.

Regardless of the reason for absence, you should follow the same process, send the flowers, make the call, pass on the health care provider’s details.  Don’t let the person feel they are being treated differently to anyone else.

Each person is different, and each illness will affect a person differently.  Therefore, you should not make any assumptions about the illness (whatever it may be) or the person themselves.  Simply start to engage with the employee who is absent as you usually would.

What to ask

You are able to ask the same questions to ascertain what has happened and what the next stage is.  It may be that at certain times, the employee is not in a position to articulate the information in one go, but this shouldn’t stop you from setting the parameters of what is acceptable; a follow up conversation, a face to face meeting, and keeping in touch after a number of days’ absence.

We always suggest that you have clear guidance notes in your handbook so that all staff members know what will happen if they are signed off from work.  That way, you are consistent in following your established process and the employee is going to be expecting you to be in touch.

Face to face vs over the phone

In some circumstances, it is better to have a face to face conversation rather than a telephone call.  These welfare meetings are great to keep the lines of communication open.  For some illnesses you can see yourself how the recovery is going, but more importantly, a lot of misunderstandings can occur even over the phone. When meeting face to face you can read the person’s body language, you can hear the tone and you can see their facial expressions.  It gives you a great opportunity to understand what is stopping them returning or to work with them on planning their return to the work place.

We like to say that it’s not what questions you ask, but how you ask the question that is more important.  As a business owner, you will need to know if they will be returning, can they do the job, how long they need off, if this is going to happen again.

You can find out this information by engaging with the absent employee during their absence, seeking and relying on medical evidence if needed and showing empathy and support.  Asking lots of open questions will encourage the employee to discuss what is happening and work with you.

Start the process early

It becomes far more difficult to start the process if the employee has been absent for a number of months and there has been no contact at all.  The employee is already unwell and not able to go to work and if they haven’t been contacted from anyone at work, they can start to feel resentful and unimportant.  Our advice is to always start talking early and keep talking throughout their absence.

It wouldn’t be a blog from Keeping HR Simple if we weren’t reminding you to log and document what you have been doing.  Document when you’ve called, attempts to keep in touch with them, conversations you’ve had, actions that have been agreed and meetings that you have had.  Having everything recorded means you have a strong audit trail to support any action taken or help to make decisions.

The Simple Take: is don’t be fearful of mental health issues.  If it helps, think of the broken leg scenario first and what questions you’d ask then, do that.  Keep in touch and keep talking to the employee.

If you need any support or help with these potentially difficult conversations get in touch.

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