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The Dos and Don’ts of a Mental Health Leave

This article is also published in HR Professional magazine and HRPA Today.

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What should you do when an employee needs time off to deal with a mental health issue?

Let’s say that you have an important employee come in to your office and state that they need to go on sick leave. Based on office rumours, you suspect it’s due to a mental illness. Now what? Here are the Dos and Don’ts.

1. Don’t ask them what sort of sickness it is unless they offer it.

2. Do show compassion. Mental illness is a sickness, just like a broken leg or a cancer diagnosis.

3. Do make sure they have a copy of their benefits booklet and understand how the sick leave process works.

How to communicate with the rest of your staff
4. Do realize that by the time the employee has requested time off, they have probably told other employees about their situation. Word can spread quickly.

5. Don’t contribute to rumours in the workplace – instead, if it comes up, focus on positive statements and the fact that we can’t understand what an ill person is feeling unless we’ve been there.


How to communicate with the employee while on leave
Why should you communicate with the employee at all while they’re off? Employees who keep in closer contact with their employer during their leave are reported to return to work sooner and have an easier transition back in to the workforce. Ignoring them completely might be construed as a signal that they’re not wanted back.

6. Do keep in touch with the employee while they are on leave. A weekly call is a good idea.

7. Do make sure your tone does not sound like you are asking how quickly they will return to work. Tricia Greco, HR director at Mary Kay Cosmetics Canada, has advised to simply ask them how they’re doing. “I usually say that we’re thinking of them, their team misses them and provide an update on what’s going on at the office so that they feel in the loop.” Greco suggests calling them every week or two. “Keep the tie to a company a positive one, rather than an ‘aren’t you better yet?’ tone.”

8. Do follow up if you receive no response. Greco advises that “if they don’t return your call, leave it alone for a week, but do try again. They have a responsibility to keep in touch with their employer.”

9. Do eliminate stigma. Evelyne Mitskopoulos, CNP, Director of Wellness at Beneplan, advises that if the employee has shared with you that the reason for their leave is a mental illness, your first conversation should be one of support. “Acknowledge that this is a medical condition, just like cancer, and appropriate treatment can be successful. Point out the features of your benefit plan that can help, such as the Naturopath, Nutritionist or EAP program.”


Always co-operate with the insurance company
10. Do co-operate with the insurance company who is paying the disability claim. Rebecca McAfee, Manager of Disability Claims and Rehab Services at The Co-operators Life, says that employers are key to the process. “We ask them what their behaviour was like at work before the claim. It’s important for employers to be open and honest. Those who are the most helpful allow us to better intervene to help someone heal and return to work more quickly.”

11. Do be open to suggestions from caseworkers. For example, they might suggest that the employee work a different shift in order to avoid a certain person.

12. Don’t assume that the insurance company is purely business-minded. “Many of our staff have experience as nurses and physicians, and we are here to help the employee, not just as a business,” added McAfee.


Address triggers in your workplace

13. Do address potential stressors in your workplace. “Examine your own workplace. Are there any easy fixes you can tackle right away?” advised Greco. “For example, if you have an employee who becomes stressed out when a particular client calls, train them to transfer the call to a supervisor.”

14. Don’t forget to include 360-degree feedback in performance reviews. Let employees rate their supervisor anonymously, and identify if there are any behaviours that might be triggering a stress response.

15. Do try to prevent stress and depression from creeping up by encouraging fitness. Mitskopoulos recommends starting a walking group, providing a discounted gym membership using your volume or being flexible about hours so that employees can get some exercise in.


How to ease the transition on day one


17. “Do bring people back gradually,” said Greco. “I always ask them to return on a Wednesday. It’s not a full week, so they can ease back in. Schedule their first few days to have meetings with a number of people to get caught up on what has happened.”

18. Do welcome them with positivity. “Send out an email to the team welcoming them back, but it’s up to the employee to share more details if they wish,” advised Greco.

19. Do have faith in their abilities. “It doesn’t take them long to be right back at it,” said Greco. “It’s like riding a bicycle. They integrate very quickly.”