Feeling isolated and disconnected when returning to work after an extended period of time off?

You wake up and as you stare at your ceiling your mind automatically begins to flood with negative thoughts that remind you that you’ve have been off work for nearly three months. You’re not telling anyone, but inside you’re not sure if you’re feeling much better.

However, you have agreed to try to return to work in two weeks’ time. With this line of thinking comes the powerful emotion of fear with respect to how your peers and your manager will treat you upon your return to work. You feel disconnected and unsure if people will accept you.
Regardless of the reason, being off work for an extended period can result in an employee feeling socially isolated and disconnected. It’s why return-to-work plans to assist employees dealing with mental health issues can go a long way in addressing feelings of loneliness and the fear of being rejected by others.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports that 30 per cent of disability claims in Canada are due to mental illness, accounting for 70 per cent of all disability costs. An employee returning to work after being off due to a mental health concern can feel significantly challenged if not properly supported. This is because mental illness comes with a stigma that can be a barrier that contributes to feeling socially isolated from others.

It’s helpful for employers and employees to be aware that a key ingredient for a successful return to work is providing clarity on what key people are in place to provide support or have the potential to build trust with an employee returning to work. They can provide confidence that they support the employee on their re-entry and will continue until they feel reconnected to their work and team. One key relationship in this process is that of the employee and their direct manager.

Proactive employers will ensure their employees know how they can support employees who are off work as well as return to work.

“Employers who put in place safe return-to-work strategies can have a positive impact for reducing perceived isolation,” says Kim Slade, director of acquisition strategy and emerging markets at Public Services Health & Safety Association, a social services organization in Toronto.

The result, she says, are employees who “feel confident they are not alone, which can aid in building the self-confidence they can return to work successfully.”


A successful return to work requires both the employee being aware of what they can do as well as what the employer can do. By working together, they can achieve the desired outcome of a successful return to work.

Employees that are off work due to a mental health concern should identify available support resources (i.e., psychologist, medical doctor, local mental health agencies) to support their treatment.

Once they’re nearing the end of their treatment plan and want to get back to work, they should engage their employer’s disability management team to develop a return to work plan and what, if any, accommodations will be required.

Managers, on the other hand, should be trained on how to provide tools and a frame of reference for an employee returning to work.

“When people are away from work for long periods of time and their connection to their social network is disrupted, this can be a challenge for both the employee and the workplace,” says Slade. “In my research working with first responders I have found there is a benefit to providing supervisors with training on how they can support employees returning to work from a mental injury or mental health concern. I suspect this same benefit could be helpful in other sectors as well.”

BILL HOWATT – Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.


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