A UK study of line managers that explores the support they have given employees who have returned to work after long-term sickness absence due to common mental disorders highlights five behavioural strategies that could enhance HR and senior management policies and practices.
Research undertaken by the University of Sheffield and Affinity Health at Work, looked at the significant role played by 20 line managers in supporting workers who suffer from stress, anxiety and depression to return to and remain in work, with a specific focus on actions that can prevent a relapse.
As reported in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, the researchers note, 'In the UK Health and Safety Executive guidelines for managing returning workers, the focus is on the absence and re-entry phases of return to work with no requirements for organisations to develop policies in the sustainable phase.'
Typically, returning workers have to rely on line managers’ own initiatives to provide support and this raises questions about which behaviours line managers exhibit, the study adds.
What’s more, the researchers argue that return to work studies have historically focused very little attention on line managers’ own perceptions of the facilitators or barriers to providing adequate support.
Finally, most qualitative research has been cross-sectional and focused more on the earlier phases of return to work, they argue.
As a result, the research team undertook a longitudinal study with 20 line managers using reflexive thematic analysis. According to the researchers, this study design was chosen to provide descriptions and in-depth interpretation of semi-structured interviews so they could better understand how the line managers supported the returned workers and whether these supportive behaviours changed over time.
On the issue of flexible work hours, the research revealed that supportive line managers often agreed to last minute changes to the working arrangements and allowed the returned worker time off when they needed it because it was found that their mental health fluctuated during the sustainable phase
According to the Journal of Managerial Psychology study, 'To the best of our knowledge no studies have focused on the attitudes and behaviours of line managers in the sustainable phase of the return to work journey. A few studies that focus on all phases of return to work have included some information about line managers, however, such evidence is embedded in wider perspectives on the barriers and facilitators…'
The line managers were recruited through social media, a large public sector and a charity newsletter and the criteria for inclusion was that the individuals had to have managed one or more workers with common mental disorders in the sustainable phase in the past 12 years, the researchers explain.
From the interviews undertaken between January and June 2019, the researchers identified five key strategies that they argue could support a sustained return to work: managing workload; flexible working time arrangements; location of work; mental health check-ups; and long-term support.
In the case of workload management, the study reveals that where line managers were proactive in their support, they often had to ensure the returned workers adhered to the workloads they had agreed with them, including insisting that the employee left work earlier than their colleagues so that they could rest and recuperate.
On the issue of flexible work hours, the research revealed that supportive line managers often agreed to last minute changes to the working arrangements and allowed the returned worker time off when they needed it because it was found that their mental health fluctuated during the sustainable phase.
Another example cited was allowing the returned worker to take leave at short notice to prevent them taking time off sick.
Related to this was allowing the returned worker to exercise some flexibility in their work location. This included the option to work from home when needed but also to work in the office if the individual didn’t feel comfortable being isolated from their colleagues.
The research found that the line managers engaged in regular (and typically informal) conversations about mental health and work with the returned worker. Importantly, the frequency of the conversations was determined by the returned worker’s own preferences.
Another significant finding was the long-term support that line managers provided. As the study reveals, line managers continued to oversee the returned workers’ work and their state of mental health long after they had returned to work.
This included providing a number of supportive measures, such as reviewing agreed work adjustments and, if necessary, drawing up new action plans.
The study also highlights how supportive line managers monitored the individuals’ progress when they started to take on more tasks and also sometimes involved work colleagues in the completion of these tasks.
Line managers also tried to create a wider supportive environment where work colleagues would also offer support to the individual.
Significantly, when the line manager recognised that the returned worker was struggling, they explained how they adjusted the support provided.
We so often hear about what went wrong, but if we can raise awareness and develop line managers to focus on these supportive behaviours and strategies they will be better able to provide an environment that is conducive to a sustainable return
Line managers told the researchers that both individual and organisational factors had influenced the support they provided. Lived experience had enabled them to understand what the returned worker went through, they said.
Interestingly, several of the line managers interviewed highlighted the importance of understanding their role and the boundaries of the support they could offer. They recognised that their job was not to provide clinical assistance but to make work adjustments and provide support at work.
A notable finding from the study was that line managers generally felt poorly equipped to provide affected individuals with support post-return. They cited a lack of support from HR and senior management. Significantly, none of the 20 line managers interviewed had received training in how to support returned workers or to make work adjustments.
The study also found that line managers often felt torn between offering support and meeting organisational demands. Senior management and HR were often resistant to making adjustments to support the returned worker, the findings show. In fact, senior management was often seen as being unsupportive, devolving responsibility to the line manager but failing to devolve the autonomy to make work adjustments.
Jo Yarker, who leads the Professional Doctorate in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London and Managing Partner at Affinity Health at Work, and one of the authors, told IOSH magazine the research offers some important practical lessons for HR and senior management: 'We so often hear about what went wrong, but if we can raise awareness and develop line managers to focus on these supportive behaviours and strategies they will be better able to provide an environment that is conducive to a sustainable return.'