Supporting sustainable return to work

Dr Jo Yarker from the Department of Organizational Psychology shares her research into supporting employees who are returning to work following mental ill-health absence.

Around 15% of the working population suffer from common mental disorders (CMDs) such as depression, anxiety and adjustment disorder (OECD, 2014). For half of these, experience of mental ill-health will lead to a period of long-term sickness absence. In the UK alone, stress, anxiety or depression accounts for 57% of all working days lost to ill-health in 2017-2018 (HSE, 2018).

Sustainable return to work for workers with CMDs is therefore a major societal challenge in terms of scale and costs. A successful initial return to work is no guarantee for sustainable return to work, with research suggesting that approximately 19% of workers subsequently relapse and take further absence or exit the workforce (Koopmans, Bültmann, Roelen, Hoedeman, van der Klink, & Groothoff, 2011).

Relapse has significant consequences for sustaining work, with implications for employment prospects, productivity and wages (OECD, 2014). There is an urgent need to better understand how workers with CMDs can be better supported to return to, and stay in, productive work. Together with my colleague Professor Karina Nielsen from the University of Sheffield, I sought to find out how to support employees returning to work following mental ill-health absence.

Understanding the barriers to sustainable return to work

Our study was the first to our knowledge to follow workers post-return using a qualitative approach. We used the recently developed IGLOO framework in our research: examining the Individual, Group, Leader, Organisational and Overarching (IGLOO) contextual factors (Nielsen, Yarker, Munir & Bültmann, 2018) that influence workers with CMDs’ ability to remain in employment throughout working life.

We conducted interviews with 38 workers who had returned from long-term sick leave due to CMDs, the majority of whom we spoke to at multiple points following their return.  We’d originally planned to follow workers in the first months after return, however, after being contacted by workers who still experienced challenges long after return, we decided to include these too. We also spoke to twenty line managers with experience managing returning workers.

Our findings

Participants reported a number of resources, in and outside of work, that helped them stay and be productive at work.

Resources at work across the five IGLOO levels help employees stay and be productive at work:

  • Individual: Creating structure within their working day to help maintain focus and concentration.
  • Group: Gaining feedback on tasks from colleagues, help with challenging tasks and being treated as before, not as someone with a CMD.
  • Leader: Agreement of communication to colleagues, continued support and access to work adjustments, and signaling (and being) available but not intrusive.
  • Organisational: Flexible working practices and leave policies, accommodating absenteeism policies, work-focused counselling, and demonstrating care through support.
  • Overarching context: This level was not applicable as we only examined UK workplaces.

Resources at home across the five IGLOO levels help employees stay and be productive at work:

  • Individual: Prioritising self-care and the establishment of clear boundaries between work and leisure.
  • Group: Understanding and non-judgmental support from friends and family.
  • Links to services: Consistent point of contact and facilitation of links to external services and treatment.
  • Organisational: Access to work-focused counselling.
  • Overarching context: Those who were financially independent were able to make choices that better suited their needs; the majority reported the positive media attention around mental health enabled them to ask for help.

The main results of our study point to important avenues for future research and practice. Within the workplace, the findings highlight the need to:

  • Consider resources at all IGLOO levels and implement multi-level interventions.
  • Train returned workers in how to structure their day.
  • Train and support line managers, both in having difficult situations but also on how to support workers creating structure and support them manage their workload.
  • Develop more information about appropriate work adjustments that can be implemented and how these can be accessed.
  • Offer flexibility to the returning employee, in relation to work schedule, ad hoc flexibility when depleted to prevent further decline and aid recovery, and flexibility in tasks.
  • Adopt an individual approach as there is no off-shelf-style that works for all.
  • Adopt a long term approach, ensuring that employees are able to access adjustments in the months and years that follow.
  • Conduct further research to enable us to understand the contribution of these features and their synergistic effect on enabling returned employees to remain productive at work.

Outside the workplace, the findings highlight the need to:

  • Conduct further research to better model the impact of support received from friends and family, GP services and those within the voluntary sector.
  • Equip GP services with the skills and knowledge to support return to work.

We developed guidance for employees, colleagues, line managers and HR professionals to support returned workers to thrive at work. This and our full report can be found on the Affinity Health at Work website.

Further Information

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Who knows wins: the validity of employee selection methods

Duncan Jackson, Chris Dewberry, Jarka Gallagher and Liam Close discuss the effectiveness of different candidate selection methods for businesses.

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash.com

In our recent article published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, we were interested in how HR practitioners perceived the validity of employee selection procedures, and how their perceptions aligned with validity estimates published in academic literature.

We summarised the discrepancies between published validity evidence and the perceptions of those who reported holding:

  1. CIPD (Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development) qualifications
  2. HRM (Human Resource Management) qualifications
  3. OP (Occupational Psychology) qualifications
  4. and laypeople, who do not hold formal HR qualifications.

Our findings suggest that the responses of those with CIPD- and HRM-related qualifications did not differ significantly or substantially from the responses of laypeople.  However, those with OP-related training tended to respond in a manner significantly and substantially more aligned with findings reported in the research literature. What do these findings imply?

They could imply that those trained in OP have a better awareness of the research literature regarding employee selection than the other groups sampled.  This is consistent with the fact that research in this area is predominantly published in journals that are psychology-oriented.  Our findings might also imply that those with CIPD- and HRM-related training do not tend to access – or perhaps do not have access to – contemporary, high-quality research related to the validity of candidate selection methods.

Dr Chris Dewberry from the Department of Organizational Psychology and a co-author on this paper states:

‘For organisations, selecting the best job candidates is very important. To achieve this, familiarity with the results of high-quality scientific research on the effectiveness of different selection methods is vital. The results of the research presented in this article clearly indicate that practitioners without a background in organisational psychology are at a disadvantage here. The implication is clear: initiatives to familiarise practitioners with an HR background about the results of scientific research on personnel selection are urgently needed.

As a community of applied researchers and practitioners, perhaps we need to do more to make research findings available and to communicate those findings.  For example, occupational psychologists could work in conjunction with the CIPD to ensure that findings published in occupational psychology-related journals are shared in an appropriate format with HRM practitioners.

If practitioners do not hold an awareness of the latest and greatest vis-à-vis employee selection research, then they might not be using candidate selection methods optimally.  This could, in turn, affect the careers of individuals and the optimal function of organisations.  Dr Scott Highhouse from Bowling Green State University offers a related explanation and suggests that practitioners might not see selection research as being relevant to their practice.  This perspective suggests that it is important to educate about the importance of validity in selection and how it impacts on practice.  A clear example of where selection applies to the bottom line for an organisation is seen in utility analysis – a function which shows how validity relates to monetary gains for organisations on the basis of using valid selection procedures.

Practitioners should consider the following actions:

  • Ensure that the choice of selection method is guided by validity evidence as published in high quality, peer-reviewed sources
  • Understand that knowledge of validity is power in employee selection: practitioners need to take the time to familiarise themselves with the literature on the validity of selection methods
  • Know that the degree of validity makes a difference to the quality of selection decisions and to the bottom line for organisations

Further information:

  • For the original, peer-reviewed article, see:
    Jackson, D. J. R., Dewberry, C., Gallagher, J., & Close, L. K. (in press). A comparative study of practitioner perceptions of selection methods in the United Kingdom. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. doi: 10.111/joop.12187
  • About the authors: Duncan Jackson, Chris Dewberry and Liam Close are members of Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology. Jarka Gallagher works for Arctic Shores Ltd, where Liam Close also works.
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