About 20 years ago, back injuries and back pain were the most expensive and concerning health problem for organizations and employees. In my work experience as a Human Resource Leader, I noticed this all changed around the year 2000. There’s a new kid in town, and his name is Depression.
The reasons for this made sense … the pressure has been on. During the 90’s there were major job losses. Those who remained picked up the slack and waited for the hiring to resume. In many cases, it didn’t and the compression hit. People simply had more work to do and less time to do it. Over the last two decades, according to the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the average work year for prime-age working couples has increased by nearly 700 hours.
By 2007, U.S. adults spent more money on antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs than any other drug category (Medco Health Solutions). Roughly 10 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers from a depressive disorder in a given year (World Health Organization). It is also estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays and low productivity, which costs employers up to $44 billion (World Health Organization). With the continued complaints of overwork and stress, it’s hard to imagine that this will abate any time soon.
Employers often have plans for how to return employees to work on a “light duty” basis after a physical health issue, but what about after a mental health issue? Sure, the policies all say “physical or mental,” but there are few guidelines available for supervisors and there are legal landmines everywhere. If you have a police officer who is rehabbing a broken leg, it’s easy to find some work inside for a while at a desk. But, if you have an employee who has depression, what is a pathway to get him back into the office where he will return to a routine and meaningfulness in his life?
The value of Return to Work policies is well documented for getting people back to work quicker. The key is to transfer the process to the worker who has had a mental setback as well. For fear of doing the wrong thing, some organizations simply do nothing. Consider these steps when bringing people back to work:
- Have the employee have their doctor review their work duties/ job description and recommend any limitations or temporary changes.
- Discuss the plan with the employee. Bear in mind this is about good people management and communication around work items, and what they feel they can do rather than a discussion about their personal health issues.
- Discuss how you can be flexible with their work.
- Discuss what roles the employee plays in their own success, and let them know that you are available for them to talk about adjustments as needed.
- Supervisors should be aware of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations for accommodations.
- Supervisors should be monitoring for any backlash by anyone else in the work group and manage any negativity.
- Have planned follow-ups with the employee to measure the success of the process.
- Stay mindful of healthcare privacy. Yes, it is the law, but even among those who like to share their own information, don’t share any physical or mental illness issues and encourage privacy as a matter of respect.
Encouraging a new culture of understanding and acceptance of an issue that impacts so many of us will help organizations retain good employees and give them back their quality of life sooner. It can also be a good wake up call for a work environment that may be overstressing some employees.