10 December, 2009
How best to keep in touch during sickness absence
Many people in the workforce, at all levels and in all sectors, will have experience of a mental health problem. The
Like Minds, Like Mine programme is offering some practical advice to employers on best practice when keeping in touch
with employees during sickness absence.
One in five New Zealanders experience a mental illness every year and it is important to note that the vast majority of
people who have time off for a mental health problem return to work successfully.
However, there are steps that employers can take to make any employee absence and the transition back to work go as
smoothly as possible.
“Appropriate contact during an absence is an opportunity to provide clear information and be supportive of an employee,”
says Judi Clements, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation. “It also means that they then do not face
additional stress through worrying about how they will be received when returning to work.”
An online toolkit on keeping in touch during sickness absence for both employees with experience of mental illness and
their employers is available through Like Minds. Areas covered include best practice for supporting an employee who is
off sick. Visit http://www.likeminds.org.nz/page/164-Employment+Employers-toolkit
to view the toolkit.
The information on supporting staff is the third in a series of workplace tips. The first two helpsheets, on the
recruitment process and supporting someone in the workplace, can also be found at http://www.likeminds.org.nz/page/164-Employment+Employers-toolkit
Keeping in touch during sickness absence
Remember that appropriate contact is essential. Co-ordinate approaches to the individual to ensure clarity about
professional roles and what support is offered.
Supporting an employee who is off sick
• Keep in touch. Many managers are hesitant about this in case they say the wrong thing or are perceived by the
employee as hassling. However, if there is little or no communication, misunderstanding and barriers can quickly arise
as employees can feel they are not missed or valued.
• Reassure them about practical issues, e.g. their job is safe, deal with financial worries
• Give the employee the chance to explain what is happening by asking open questions
• Ask if there is anything you can do to help
• Reassure them that you understand medical and personal boundaries and will respect them.
• Review their needs/wishes for support
• Depending on the severity of the illness, explore if it would be helpful to think about a stepping stone between
work and absence, e.g. work for a couple of hours a day at home.
• The bottom line is to let people know they are not forgotten. Don’t make them feel their problem is shameful.
• Putting pressure on the person to divulge personal or medical information – it is their choice to reveal this or
• Putting pressure on them to name a return date. While they are in crisis, it may be impossible for them to know
how long recovery will take. Deadlines will only add to the pressure.
Keeping in touch while you are away
Although it can feel difficult, it is advisable to keep in touch with your employer.
This is partly so that practical issues around sick leave can be sorted and you can clear up any worries that you have
that relate to the job. However it’s also important for emotional and social reasons. It’s easy to feel cut off and
isolated and to lose confidence. And, the longer you are away, the more difficult it can be to cross the threshold when
you do return.
Consider the following:
• If you are worried about losing your job or about financial issues, it is best to raise these fears directly so
that you can clarify the true position.
• Is there a colleague or friend at work who can keep you in touch and let others know how you are?
• Do you want visits/calls from colleagues?
• What questions are off limits? And how will you handle this?
• Is there a midpoint between working and being off sick – for example, could you work a couple of hours a day
Source: Line Managers’ Resource, Mind Out for Mental Health
About Like Minds, Like Mine
Like Minds, Like Mine is a public education programme aimed at reducing the stigma and discrimination faced by people
with experience of mental illness. The programme is funded by the Ministry of Health and guided by the Like Minds
Around the world, stigma and discrimination is one of the major barriers to a person's recovery. But changing attitudes
and behaviour in society is complex, so the Like Minds programme works on a variety of levels to try to achieve this.
The majority of its work is undertaken by several national contractors, including the Mental Health Foundation and a
team of 26 Like Minds providers.
The keeping in touch media release is the third in an employment series. For the first two releases – on best practice
at the recruitment stage and supporting staff – please click on the link below.