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Returning to work

If you have been unwell, it’s important to have a plan before rushing back to full-time duties.

Developing a personalised ‘return to work’ plan gives you a sense of control over the process and allows you to think through what combinations of hours, duties and support will best meet your needs as you continue your recovery. It will also help you manage your own expectations, and those of your customers, as you ease back into your business.

The benefit of work to recovery

It’s a common misconception that you need to fully recover before returning to work. However, research has shown that in most cases early return to work can play an important part in overall recovery, in particular, if you are experiencing a mental illness. There is also clear evidence that the longer you are away from work, the more difficult it can be to return.

Work promotes recovery by:

  • Giving daily structure and routine
  • Offering a sense of meaning and purpose
  • Increasing confidence and self-esteem
  • Opening opportunities for social connection and support.

The key is putting the right support in place early so that your return to work is not overwhelming.

Tips for planning your return to work

  • Talk to your doctor. Get advice on a realistic return to work timeline and recovery phase that reflects your health. Your plan should provide enough time to allow you to recover and not push yourself to get there.
  • Who can support you to develop your plan? Aside from your doctor, you could include other treatment professionals such as a mentor, business advisor or someone who has been looking after your business while you have been away.
  • Decide what hours will be manageable. You may want to start with a couple of hours and gradually increase them each week. Factor in regular breaks, particularly if you’re finding it difficult to concentrate, and flexible working times so that you can attend health appointments.
  • Focus on what you can do. Identify what duties feel manageable initially and consider increasing these each week until you feel ready to resume your full workload.
  • Delegate where possible. Divide up tasks that you may initially find stressful or overwhelming, for example, meeting new customers or administrative duties.
  • Consider any work space adjustments. You may choose to work from home or in your office, or a combination of locations. Do you need to make any adjustments to your work area, for example moving your desk to a quieter area or change the lighting? Do you need any equipment modifications?
  • Identify potential risks. Talk to your mentor or business advisor about what you can do differently to reduce any work-related stressors that may have contributed to your mental ill-health or physical condition.
  • Communicate your return to work plan. Talk to any employees, customers and suppliers. Remember, it is not necessary for you to disclose why you’ve been away, unless this is important to you.
  • Identify your support people. Meet with them regularly to discuss how you are doing, and set realistic goals for yourself. It’s important to choose support people that you can call on when you need practical assistance or reassurance. Consider a friend or family member, your doctor, psychologist, or your industry association.
  • Update your plan to reflect your progress. Ensure your hours, tasks and supports continue to meet your needs as you recover. Remember, this plan should support your mental health so if the plan isn’t working, change it. It’s also important to include in your plan what to do if things don’t improve or they get worse.
  • Review your plan. Meet with your doctor and other support people at the end of the designated period.

Further reading

Return to work website

This site is designed to help anyone involved in returning to work after absence due to depression, anxiety or a related mental health problem. It also has a specific section for small business owners.

Guide on managing mental illness in the workplace

While not specific for small business, this resource contains loads of examples of reasonable adjustments you could consider to help you or an employee keep working, or return to work after an absence due to mental ill-health.

More Resources