Talking about mental health can feel awkward, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience doing it. In previous blog posts we’ve explored approaches to help you navigate conversations with a co-worker who might be struggling with their mental health… But how should you handle the aftermath of a mental health issue?
When a person experiences significant distress it may be recommended by a health care practitioner that their declining mental health should become the number one priority, and making that shift may well require temporary leave from work. A person’s acute symptoms might also impact their ability to fulfill their job duties, so pressing pause on work until they’re better makes sense.
Let’s say your co-worker, Sophie, has been off for a couple of months and the workplace grapevine has led you to believe a mental health problem may have had something to do with it. Sophie will be returning to work on Monday. Here are a few ideas to guide you away from discomfort and toward a place where Sophie feels welcome and well supported upon her return.
Sophie likely feels nervous about her return and may be worried about feeling stigmatized, socially rejected or otherwise treated differently by her peers. Making a point to approach Sophie and let her know she was missed and that her co-workers are glad she’s back and feeling better can go a long way. Imagine that, instead of a mental health issue, Sophie had been off work due to a back injury. How would you approach her upon her return? You probably wouldn’t fret too much about how to phrase things and would instead allow your words to flow naturally, giving her a genuine, warm welcome back to the office. Your interaction with Sophie shouldn’t really be any different whether the issue was related to mental health or physical health.
2. Check In
If Sophie had sustained a back injury you’d probably touch base with her now and again to make sure she’s feeling OK and not in pain, right? This would be particularly important if you were in a leadership position (e.g. Sophie’s direct-report manager) or if you were responsible for facilitating Sophie’s leave and/or ensuring appropriate accommodations were put in place (e.g. Human Resource professional). Even if it’s not technically your responsibility to check in on Sophie – like if she’s your co-worker – you may very well just want to offer a bit of support, knowing that returning to the workplace after being off for a health issue can be difficult. Find an appropriate time and place to ask Sophie how she’s doing and if there’s anything you can do to make the transition easier.
3. Tailor Your Welcome
Would your workplace normally get a Welcome Back cake in honour of Sophie’s return after sustaining a back injury and working hard to recover? In what way would you and your peers acknowledge that recovery takes a lot of time, energy and perseverance? Perhaps Sophie had to work through a lot of physical pain and gradually got better with help from a physiotherapist and her family doctor. Maybe she had to undergo surgery. In any case, your workplace would likely acknowledge her journey and celebrate her recovery. Is it appropriate to acknowledge recovery from a mental health issue in the same way? Well, the old adage that we should treat people the way we’d like to be treated doesn’t hold true here. Instead, we should treat Sophie the way she would like to be treated. Whether it’s a back injury or depression that she’s recovered from, a conversation should be had with Sophie to determine her comfort level. For some, health issues are a private matter while others would really appreciate an outward show of support from their team. The appropriate individual (Sophie’s manager, for example) might say something like: “Sophie, we’re so glad to have you back at the office and we’d love to celebrate your recovery. I’ve put a bit of thought in to it and wondered if we could do that by doing [blank], [blank] or [blank]. What are your thoughts?” You know what they say about making assumptions! Sophie will feel best supported by deciding what’s comfortable for her rather than having her co-workers make guesses.
Are you seeing a pattern here? Mental health issues are just that: health issues – and as such, the same rules generally apply to mental health that apply to physical health in the workplace. If you’re struggling with how to approach a mental health related situation that’s potentially awkward or uncomfortable, ask yourself, “How would I navigate this if the circumstances were related to a physical health issue?” This rule of thumb will serve you well in ensuring mental health is taken seriously and addressed in an appropriate and sensitive way.
Thanks for tuning in! See you next week.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to keynote speaking and corporate training on workplace mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.