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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The proposed ‘right to disconnect’ after work hours is welcome, but not enough

This post was contributed by Professor Gillian Symon, member of the Digital Brain Switch project. Involving a multi-disciplinary team of UK researchers (including Birkbeck’s Dr Rebecca Whiting), the project explored the ways in which mobile communication technology  affects how we switch between different aspects of our lives. This article was originally posted on The Conversation on 23 March 2016.    

Changes proposed to France’s famously inflexible employment laws by French president François Hollande have prompted an outcry among students and unionists and even the barricading of schools by pupils. But among the raft of changes to working practices is the liberating notion that employees should have the right to disconnect: to ignore emails from employers during evenings and weekends so that time with friends and family is not affected by work distractions or feelings of guilt.

Limited interventions of this sort have been put forward in Germany and France before, but this is the first proposal that the right be enshrined in law.

There is much to like about it. First, it recognises the massive impact the widespread use of smartphones and tablets, Wi-Fi and high-speed mobile internet has had on our working lives. In as much as work emails, diaries and contacts are on a smartphone in our pocket, to some extent we are never truly “out of the office”. The proposal seeks to counter this in legislation, not to leave it to corporate custom and practice.

Second, the proposed legislation acknowledges the considerable research that suggests that we need to psychologically detach from work regularly, or risk becoming exhausted and losing our creativity.

Third and most importantly, it makes the employer at least partly responsible for managing this intrusive technology and its effects on employees. There is a recognised paradox, whereby technology allows flexibility over when and where we work, but at the same time acts as a leash that chains us to our (virtual) desks. For too long this has been seen as something employees themselves should manage.

The research into work-life balance my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that achieving the right balance has become another “life crisis”. It is one that is fed by endless media articles and self-help books, and one that is almost certainly unresolvable by the individual as so much of the pressure comes from bosses and colleagues at work. What we’ve found is that there needs to be respect for individuals’ chosen work-life boundaries at all levels within organisations.

So congratulations to the French for taking this particular taureau by the cornes. But is their proposed approach through new legislation the right answer?

It’s not easy, and often employers don’t make it any easier. wongstock/shutterstock.com

As far as it goes

There are three ways digital media and mobile technology have affected our lives that isn’t acknowledged by legislation, which is concerned only with time spent connected to work. In our research we’ve sought to highlight the creeping effects of “digi-housekeeping”: those endless technology maintenance tasks that we engage in – updating software, syncing devices, fighting technical problems – which often takes place outside of office hours and doesn’t appear on time sheets. None of this is accounted for by legislative approaches.

Nor does legislation address the way in which the use of social media for work may intrude into our privacy. When we blog and tweet for our employers, are we exploiting our personal identities for their ends? Are these additional tasks, and the need to maintain our digital presence online, causing us anxiety and increasing our workload without any formal recognition of the effort involved? These sorts of activities go beyond a concern with just maintaining a time boundary between work and life. They represent new tasks required to maintain our digital work lives.

What’s more, because the French legislation presumes an employee-employer relationship, it entirely ignores the anxieties of the self-employed, as those taking part in our research told us. While those working for themselves have always had to work hard, social media has put added pressure on them to be constantly online and accessible to maintain their business. We need more imaginative interventions that will address the needs of specific groups such as these.

What are 21st century working lives like?

The French legislation is important primarily because it makes clear the responsibilities of employers and organisations. However, it’s also rather a blunt-edged tool that doesn’t appreciate the intricacies of our online lives. Legislation like this enforces a strict work-life boundary that may be a thing of the past.

Read the original post on The Conversation

Read the original post on The Conversation

Our research collaborators kept video diaries that captured the complex circumstances of today’s workers in a more revealing way than traditional surveys can do. These video diaries suggest we might be making sense of our lives in radically different ways in the 21st century. We distinguish between online and offline lives rather than work and non-work hours, and we think more about how we prioritise time, rather than how we divide it.

To support flexible working, we may need flexible legislation that is based on other considerations than time alone, including where and how we work best. It’s very unlikely there will be a one-size-fits-all solution; researchers and policymakers are going to have to find more creative 21st century solutions for this very 21st century problem.

So the French government’s move to formally recognise the distraction caused by unfettered technology is welcome, but limited. To improve upon it, we need to understand much more fully the complexities of contemporary digital online lives, what boundaries people now find important, and how the law can best support them.

Find out more

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Age at Work

On Friday 21 September 2012, Dr Katrina Pritchard and Dr Rebecca Whiting from the Department of Organizational Psychology will be holding a seminar at Birkbeck to present findings and insights from their research on age at work. 

In September 2011 we began a year-long project, funded by the Richard Benjamin Trust, to map the language of age at work, using web-based data. It has involved collecting stories, accounts, images and discussions about age at work published on the internet, for example online news media, blogs, tweets and other electronic forms. We decided to adopt this novel research approach to address both the lack of discourse studies that use web-based data and the increasing dissatisfaction with current conceptualisations of age based on chronology.

The voices in our data include campaign and lobby groups, labour market intermediaries, job seekers, government, professional bodies, employers, charities, academics, recruitment and management consultants and the press. The conversations have covered topics such as age, gender and aesthetic labour; the discursive construction of generations; and the ‘weary woman.’

We have adopted an inclusive approach to defining ‘age at work’ by examining how people are talked about in relation to both ‘age’ (younger, older etc) and ‘work’ (employment, unemployment, under-employment etc). This has also involved looking beyond the terms ‘young’ and ‘old’ to consider particular concepts such as generations and the inter-relationships between them.

Both the media and academia have tended to present certain issues as either impacting or being caused by specific generations, for example the effect of the ‘baby boomers’  on subsequent generations; or the ‘lost generation’,  namely the young unemployed affected by the credit crunch of 2008 onwards.

We are now in the early stages of examining our data and we expect more to emerge as we continue our analysis. The seminar is a starting point at which we will share our initial thoughts with other researchers and with practitioners and others working in this field.

By following various conversations, we have looked at how identities are co-constructed across web-based media, for example, the entanglement of age and gender constructions in discussions of competence with technology  or aesthetic labour. We have also been examining how emerging media are implicated in the practices and processes of constructing ‘generations’ in debates on age and employment.

Organizational management and educational, employment and retirement policy within the UK are tied to various conceptualisations of age. Our research will be able to provide a basis for examining the limitations of current thinking in this area. We aim to open up opportunities to explore new ways of talking about age at work as well as to address methodological challenges and insights from our e-research project.

Age at Work seminar: 21 September

A limited number of places are still available. Attendance is free but booking is required.

More information about the seminar, including how to register, is available on the project’s research blog.

 
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