Getting stressed employees back to work

Jul 23 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Lack of attention to rehabilitating ‘stressed’ employees is costing employers thousands of pounds every year, according to a new report produced for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES).

The UK has one of the worst records in Europe for the return of employees to work after long-term illness, and over the last six years there has been a rapid increase in the numbers of people who report they are experiencing stress.

The most recent figures from the HSE show that over half a million people said they were affected by stress at work and that 13.4 million working days were lost due to stress and related conditions. The average time taken off by workers as a result of stress is estimated at 29 days a year.

The HSE report, 'Best Practice in Rehabilitating Employees Following Absence Due to Work-related Stress', has highlighted how a large range of methods are now being used by organisations in the UK to rehabilitate employees.

Fourteen case study organisations were involved in the research from a variety of sectors and ranging in size from a few employees to tens of thousands. But, according to the report, efforts to deal with long-term absence is undermined by the use of ‘stress’ as a catch-all term.

"The key to being able to intervene effectively is understanding the specific nature of the stress problem," said Jo Rick of the Institute for Employment Studies and co-author of the report.

"Stress as a cause of absence is different from physical illnesses. If an employee sends in a sick note, for example, for a broken leg, the employer immediately has some idea of the likely length of absence, the limitations on that employee during the illness, and dependent on the individual’s job and severity of the break, whether there will be any need for adjustment to work in the longer term.

"A GP will write “stress” on a sick note because their duty is to decide whether or not a person is fit for work. Yet stress is used to describe a very wide range of conditions."

Examples of best practice in the report demonstrate how seriously UK employers are taking the challenge of growing levels of absence from stress-related illnesses.

Initiatives include: training for managers to recognise early signs of problems in employees; risk assessments for stress in different jobs; coaching for managers in dealing with an employee once they are off work with stress; the use of cognitive behavioural therapy, and the offer of phased returns to work, reduced hours and temporary reassignments.

Amongst the recommendations made by the HSE for good rehabilitation practice that can help organisations deal with employees absent from work due to stress are:

  • Maintaining contact with the employee on a personal rather than purely a work-related basis.
  • Attempting to diagnose the specific problems behind the ‘stress’ involved.
  • Providing immediate support from the start of the absence.
  • Encouraging stress awareness among line managers.
  • Being creative and flexible about options for a return to work.
  • Developing an agreed rehabilitation plan with the employee.
  • Creating a written policy or set of guidelines for employee rehabilitation.

The report is available for download from the HSE stress web pages at as well as HSE’s research site at