Return to work after psychological illness or injury

What is a Workplace Psychological Injury?

A Psychological injury refers to the emotional, behavioural, or cognitive impacts from an event or multiple events which occurred at the workplace, or in the context of work. Some common types of events which may lead to a psychological injury include; bullying and harassment, excessive workloads, micro-managing, workplace violence, or poorly handled HR processes. People may also develop a psychological injury in response to a physical injury which occurred at work. According to the Black Dog Institute, psychological injury claims now account for nearly 70% of all workers compensation claims. Common diagnoses provided in response to these types of events include; Anxiety, Depression, Adjustment Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Whilst the specific way to treat each of these types of injuries may vary, there are some common experiences when people return to work.

Same or different Role?

Following a psychological illness or injury, many people will return to work in the same role. This is particularly true in cases where people feel well-supported by the workplace to manage their illness or injury. Having a good relationship with your direct line manager and work colleagues is a positive indicator for a successful return to work. For others, returning to work in the same role and perhaps even with the same organisation may not be successful. Often in these cases, the person feels a sense of anger, unfairness and injustice about what has occurred. This may occur when the workplace has not provided adequate care or support to the person following the workplace illness or injury. Deciding not to return to your previous role can be a big decision. The feelings of anger and unfairness may work to exacerbate symptoms and may make moving on more challenging.

what to expect when returning to work

Unfortunately, stigma regarding mental health issues still exists within the community. It is common to experience feelings of shame or guilt following a psychological injury. The idea that because you can’t “see” the injury, you are making it up or it’s all in your head is one that still exists within the community. People who have suffered a psychological injury, often feel like they’ve let themselves, their family and their work colleagues down. Because of this, people often fear returning to work after taking time off for mental health reasons. Just the thought of returning to work may lead to an increase or return of psychological symptoms. Whilst not the case for everyone, many people find their manager, colleagues and the workplace supportive of their recovery and return to work.

return to work strategies

When you are ready to return to work, it is important that your manager, human resources, workers insurance (if applicable), and your treatment team are all working towards the same goal. It may be helpful to have a structured plan to support your return to work and to learn positive coping strategies to support your return. A Psychologist with experience managing workplace-related mental health challenges can support you to manage your return to work. Below are some common strategies you may find helpful:

1. Recovery first

The initial focus should be around your recovery rather than on return to work. Initially focusing on your recovery will provide the time and space needed to stabilise your symptoms, learn new skills and ready yourself for return to work. Focusing on return to work during the recovery phase, or returning to work too early may exacerbate your symptoms. When you are ready, being back at work will form an important part of your recovery journey.

2. Gradual return

When it can be accommodated by the workplace a gradual return to work may be helpful. While the injured worker may have learned new ways of coping with their injury and feel psychologically ready to return to work, returning to work may still be a stressful experience. It is normal to notice an increase in your symptoms at the prospect of returning to work, you might feel stressed, anxious, fearful or experience difficulties sleeping. In order to achieve a successful return to work, starting off with reduced days and hours or alternative duties may be helpful. This enables you to gradually re-adjust to being back at work, while still having time to engage in wellbeing activities to maintain your mental health. As you re-adjust, people generally find the initial spike in symptoms associated with their return starts to subside. Over time, they are able to gradually increase back to their usual days and hours.

3. Conversation scripts

A common source of anxiety for people returning to work is talking with their colleagues about their absence. It may be helpful to have developed a conversation script ahead of time. This may help you to feel better prepared to handle these types of conversations when they arise. When preparing your script, it may be helpful to remember that you are in control of what information you choose to disclose. You can choose to say as little or as much as you feel comfortable with.

4. Workplace support

Additional workplace supports may take many forms. This may include temporarily modified duties, or a temporary change to your reporting line. The specific support provided by the workplace should be tailored based on your specific needs. Whilst the specific support needed may vary, it is generally considered best practice to have some additional check ins with your manager during your return to work. This helps to ensure you have a forum to raise any concerns about your return and have these addressed in a timely manner.

At Uplift Psychology we work directly with you to develop an individually tailored recovery plan. If you would like to learn more about how we may be able to help you to recover and return to work, contact us today.


Black Dog Institute – Has the Mental Health of Australians Changed Over the Last 20 Years

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