Supporting someone returning to work after depression
December 30, 2008 7:16 AM   Subscribe

How can I best support a staff member returning to work after a period off with depression?

I manage someone who has had a couple of months off work with depression and anxiety (not work-related). This person is coming back to work on a phased return and I'm wondering if there are things I haven't thought of which would help to ensure the return is as easy as possible. I am planning to keep a fairly tight grip (weekly meetings) on workload so that it doesn't become overwhelming. The phased return means that the number of hours the person works will build up gradually over a few weeks. I'm aware of the person's need to have time off for appointments and we can accommodate that. Working at home some of the time is a possibility. Are there other ways you have known helpful? If you have you come back to work from a similar situation are there strategies that have worked for you?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've never been in this situation, but I can imagine that the most important thing will be to treat that person as normally as possible. I'm sure this will be a difficult thing, as nobody likes to admit they have problems, much less that they had to leave work for them. Be helpful, be friendly, be warm, but try not to overdo it. Make sure you invite them to lunch with everyone else and, in as many ways as possible, give the sense that there's been a space in the office that they are now fitting perfectly back into. This person will want to know they've been missed and will want to know everyone is happy they've returned, but will definitely be on high alert for any indications they're being treated as "that depressed person."

I do think the very fact that you're posting this means you are in the right mindset.
posted by missjenny at 7:27 AM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Everyone has really different needs when it comes to mental health and the workplace. Some people want lots of check ins, other people want to be left alone completely. Still others want to be treated as though nothing is at all different. I think your best best is to just have a sit down with this person and say basically what you said here which is "I'd like to support you and here are the practical ways I can do that--allowing you to work from home, accommodating your schedule, etc.--but I'd also like to make sure that I'm supporting you in other ways as well. I was wondering what kind of support you would like and need." This could be a good door to open for this person who might already have some ideas in mind of what s/he needs but isn't sure if it's okay to ask or articulate it.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 7:32 AM on December 30, 2008

I think asking is a good idea, because otherwise it would be easy to accidentally insult or overlook something. I know from my own experience with depression that working at home would actually have probably been worse for me because it was when I was alone that I felt worse. Perhaps you could ask them what they want/need then offer that you're always available to talk (if you are and don't feel this would jeopardize your work relationship) before finally treating them as if there's nothing wrong. Personally I'd rather have people treat me as if I was sick and am getting better. More of that "glad to see you back" sort of thing.
posted by big open mouth at 7:52 AM on December 30, 2008

The sheer fact that you care enough to ask and plan ahead, shows you are an attentive manager and are ahead of most management these days. The biggest problem alot of people with depression face, is a complete lack of understanding. Many times they are faced with co-workers brushing off their illness as something that simply be "gotten over" and sometimes, they even face hostility, as others view their time off as simply shirking responsibility. I would suggest letting this individual know that you are supportive and would like to maintain an open line of communication in regards to their well being. Letting them know that your door (and mind) is open will go a very long way.
posted by scarello at 8:13 AM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Take them for a coffee first thing on their first day back and let them know that you're happy they're back, but you want them to take things at their own pace. This person might be raring to go after months of being away from work, or they might be dreading or doubting their own capacity to cope. You don't know until you ask. Lots about that person may have changed since they were last working in the department - and lots may have changed since they were there.

I've had this work really well when I had the person returning from stress leave come back on a part time basis for the first few weeks - on their own schedule. Literally, as in, tell me in the morning if you feel up for coming in that day. She was really worried about being out of the swing of things and not being able to handle things well. The solution we agreed was that I would work in tandem with her for the first month or so - shared email inboxes, etc - so she could see the full flow of what was coming in and out, was introduced to new people in the company and new roles for people she already knew, and very gradually got back into the swing of things. I also happened to have a good personal relationship with this staff member, so she trusted me to not be breathing down her neck, with this, more like I had her back.

If you can convince your staff member that you well and truly are supporting them, it should go a long way to helping them return and perform well once they're back.
posted by Grrlscout at 8:57 AM on December 30, 2008

Nthing listening, asking, also adjusting as you go along.

And (not that you would) don't do that thing people do where they talk about something Scary! like depression or black people or a wheelchair and they sort of whisper and look a little tense. It's just a regular ol' life experience that zillions of people experience. If you're calm and direct and reasonable (which you will be), that'll make everything a lot better.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:17 AM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

First and foremost, thank you for being a humane manager. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

It's true that everyone has different personal coping mechanisms for getting through depression, anxiety, and the stress of living (or returning to) a normalised daily life with those boon companions. Because this person took time off and requires a phased return, though, I think they'll need a softer landing than just acting as if nothing has happened. Something has happened, and they're likely to still be somewhat out of sorts during their re-integration into the workplace.

If you're having to work with HR on any of this, talk to them first to make sure you're aware of your company's policies and the most up-to-date legal guidelines.

On their first day back, let them know you'd like to chat, either immediately or once they get situated (within a certain timeframe, to prevent your schedule from being randomised) - those will cover most preferences. Some folks prefer a chance to warm their chair and check through email for a bit, and some can't touch anything until they know what's going on. If you've got meetings or anything else limiting your availability which can't be changed, let them know.

During the chat (after the polite basics, of course), ask them what limitations, if any, have been placed upon their productivity or performance expectations and for how long. Discuss any requests they may have for taking their disability into account (e.g., some people can't handle phones for a while, some need more time to complete things requiring attention to detail, some need someone else to check over their work due to stress-related memory holes, some will be dealing with extra sleepiness or even more exciting effects from new medications they haven't quite adjusted to...that sort of thing). If you need to confirm with HR or anyone else before agreeing to anything, let them know.

After you know what their situation and limitations are, let them know your expectations and how they should inform you if something becomes problematic or turns out more difficult. This part of the conversation should include an update on their responsibilities, how much they're expected to get done, confirmation of any status reports or other measures put into place to track productivity, and any upcoming initiatives or projects.

Take time to update them on what the rest of the team/group/company is doing, so they can see how what they'll be doing will fit into the big picture. You don't need to go into deep detail, but do spend more time on what the team is doing. Also update them on anyone they'll need to interact with, any policy or process changes they've missed, and anything else that will make them feel in the loop. Note that they made need a training session with a competent team member for anything that changed while they were out.

Give them an opportunity to ask questions, request revisions to anything you've outlined, or otherwise respond to your side of the conversation. I'd encourage you to be taking notes and have them take notes, too. When the meeting is over, one of you needs to send a recap via email for anything regarding performance and productivity expectations. You can do it, but, if the employee can handle it, you both may get more out of seeing what their understanding of the situation is so you can correct any misperceptions or clarify anything confusing.

After all of this, you may want to send an update to HR on how you and the employee have agreed to handle things during their reintegration. It might not be necessary, but it's a good thing to have in the file for you, your company, and even the employee.

If you can, let their first day back be a little shorter than even their phased-return may require. This is sure to be an exhausting transition and a gentle first day can mean the difference between their lasting a week or another couple of years.

Know that sometimes the employee isn't actually ready to be back at work and may not be aware. Observe their productivity, make sure they're not flailing, keep them focused on meeting expectations without breaking themselves, and be ready to speak up if you feel they may need more help before being ready to rejoin the workforce. Again, check with HR on company policy for this situation. You'll need to be protective of your own productivity and the ability of your team to be effective, no matter how much you want things to work out for the employee, so be careful of overextending yourself or sacrificing important goals.

Most importantly, pay attention to the conditions of their phased return and be aware of the demands and timing of the workload you are handing them. Make certain the workload fits the hours they will be available and that they know all appropriate escalation paths in case things start to go awry again.

Once again, thank you for wanting to be a compassionate manager. I've been on both sides of this type of situation. When I was in the employee's position, it didn't work out for me at all because the managers in place absolutely did not understand (and did not want to, more to the point), and I spent a long while desperately trying to figure out how to juggle my temporary limitations and their unrealistic, uninformed, ambiguous expectations.

Good luck to you both!
posted by batmonkey at 10:46 AM on December 30, 2008

One extra thing: make sure any people they need to interact with for hand-offs, functional tasks, or other responsibilities are aware of the time limitations and adjusted expectations for the employee. Don't give them information on the employee's condition, of course, but do let them know that the employee is temporarily working a revised schedule to set their expectations appropriately. It would probably be a good idea to have those people send feedback directly to you if something goes wrong or if they're not getting the responses they need, as you'll be in a better position to judge the situation and how to handle it.

I also forgot to address the working from home component - your employee may want permission to retreat from the workplace to work from home, but it would probably be a good idea to encourage them to spend at least an hour at their desk each day, because part of the phased return intention is to re-acclimate to the day-to-day environment. And, as someone said above, feeling welcomed and supported in the office will go a lot further to healing your employee (if they're ready for it) than allowing them to tuck into their hidey-hole at home.

and I wish I could go up and change "made" to "may", but we still await the edit function. d'oh.
posted by batmonkey at 11:06 AM on December 30, 2008

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