Turning the Page on Mental Health Absences: Return-To-Work Success Strategies


The increase in mental health claims poses a significant challenge for employers. 

The Mental Health Commission of Canada states that every week in Canada, roughly 500,000 employees are off work because of mental health issues (1). 

As per the statistics from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, it has the potential to affect productivity, absenteeism, turnover, and employee morale. This challenge is amplified by the complexity of managing mental health-related absences and creating effective early return-to-work plans.

This article will look at why mental health Short-Term Disability (STD) cases are so difficult and what employers and case managers can do to better manage the case and support the employee. 

Challenges of Return-To-Work for Mental Health Claims

There is no standard return-to-work (RTW) estimate as in most other STD cases; every mental health case is different and has its own challenges. 

WMC case managers have found the most common reasons why mental health cases are difficult to manage:

Motivation of employee

Motivating an employee to return to work after a mental health absence can be difficult due to the emotional toll and anxiety that often accompanies such situations.

Difficult for employers to accommodate

Employers may struggle to create an accommodating environment for employees with mental health claims due to a lack of awareness and support systems within the workplace.

Comorbidities and pre-existing conditions

The presence of comorbidities in mental health claims introduces complexity. The severity, recovery time, and required care vary based on the specific pre-existing condition, alongside the workplace-related nature of the claim.

Labour relations issues

These issues complicate the return-to-work process due to legal agreements, union negotiations, and employment contracts which can impact the terms and conditions under which an employee returns to work. A key role of the case manager is to separate labour relations issues from medical issues.

No standard recovery times

Every mental health case is unique to an individual, making it difficult to establish standard timelines making it difficult to develop an RTW plan.

More frequent contacts

Effective support requires frequent communication such as regular check-ins, clear channels for reporting concerns, and access to mental health professionals which can sometimes be difficult for employers.

Stigma for employees returning to work after a mental health absence

The stigma around mental health in the workplace can make employees hesitant to return to work. It can be the boss or employees who may not understand the reason for absences.

More coordination is required from healthcare providers

Managing mental health cases is also more challenging because they often require a multidisciplinary approach; establishing strong communication between family doctors and required specialists, employers, and employees to build an effective support system.

Occupational vs Non-Occupational Mental Health Cases

One misconception we would like to clear up is that there is a difference between occupational and non-occupational health cases.  Management of mental health cases should be no different for occupational or non-occupational health claims.  The focus should be on the employee, not the payer.  

However, we do need to consider how the payment affects the employee, in particular employee motivation.

This is evident through the compensation contrast: occupational health claims receive higher payments than non-occupational ones, potentially diminishing the financial incentive for a swift return to work. Non-occupational claims average 60-75% of gross income, while occupational claims provide 80-90% of net income. Moreover, the strict requirements from workers’ compensation boards make managing occupational mental health claims more challenging, limiting the authority of disability management departments.

How to Better Manage Mental Health Cases

Mental health claims can be difficult to manage. However, there are ways better to manage mental health for employers and case managers alike.

For the Case Manager

  1. More coaching and dialogue than in other cases

Mental health cases demand a deeper level of coaching and dialogue. This is because motivating employees to embark on their return-to-work journey often requires mental health coaching. 

This step is crucial because it not only addresses their medical needs but also uplifts their spirits. In mental health cases, being a source of encouragement, sometimes akin to a “cheerleader,” plays a significant role in motivating the employee.

  1. More use of IME (Independent medical examination)

Leveraging IME becomes more frequent as it provides an objective assessment of the employee’s mental health condition, helping in determining the most effective treatment plan.

  1. Doctor to doctor to determine treatment plan

Collaborative discussions between medical professionals become paramount. This “doctor-to-doctor” approach ensures a comprehensive and well-rounded treatment plan.

  1. Have RTW plan – goals, challenges

To facilitate a seamless return to work, it is imperative to establish a well-structured Return-to-Work (RTW) plan. This plan should encompass clearly defined objectives and a comprehensive assessment of potential obstacles. Key components include:

  • Understanding Recovery Timelines: Regular employee check-ups are essential for gaining insight into estimated recovery timelines.
  • Comprehensive Case-File Documentation: Ensure that the case file contains ample medical information to substantiate the claim.
  • Consulting with Medical Specialists: Seek guidance and insights from healthcare and medical specialists for a well-informed prognosis.
  • Accommodation Strategies: Collaborate with supervisors, employees, and other stakeholders to determine the most suitable accommodation options.
  • This approach aligns with the guidelines provided in the 2023 guide for managing return to work. It not only promotes a successful transition back to work but also emphasizes a proactive and supportive approach to employee well-being.
  1. Frequent file review

Mental health cases require more frequent file reviews. Case managers must regularly review and update the case files to stay attuned to the employee’s progress and challenges.

  1. Use EAP and other services, reinforce extended health benefits, make sure they are going, wellness platform, education, online CBT

Utilizing Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and other available services is essential. Reinforcing the use of extended health benefits, wellness platforms, education, and online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) resources can significantly aid in the employee’s recovery.

  1. Separate medical issues from employment issues

The importance of separating medical issues from employment issues should be emphasized in the return-to-work process. This approach is grounded in several key principles:

  • Reaffirming Value: Life can present unexpected challenges, including medical issues, but this does not diminish the significance of the employee’s role within our team.
  • Building a Supportive Environment: The path back to work after a medical issue can be daunting, and case managers should provide the necessary resources and encouragement to ease this transition.
  • Assisting with RTW Plans: A case manager’s expertise in occupational health allows them to collaborate effectively, ensuring a smooth and sustainable reintegration into the workplace.
  • Relationship Building: Through regular check-ins, establish a connection that goes beyond the professional realm. These interactions can provide you with insight into their well-being, ensuring that their physical and mental health is prioritized.
  • Open Door Policy: Always touch base with the employee to understand where they are mentally. This open and transparent communication fosters trust and ensures that any concerns or challenges they may face are addressed promptly and effectively.

Have questions or need guidance on managing mental health claims? Reach out to our team of experts for personalized assistance.

For the Employer

  1. Maintain regular communication

Maintaining regular and open communication with the employee is paramount. Understanding their treatment plan and the full scope of their functional abilities is essential to the recovery of the employee. 

  1. Have a communication plan

A communication plan should be included within the return-to-work plan to ensure that the employee is in working condition. Regular mental health check-ups with future and current employees will help with tackling problems before they get worse.

  1. Promote a Supportive Workplace Culture

Creating and nurturing a workplace culture that prioritizes mental health is essential. Employers should foster an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health concerns without fear of stigma. This open and supportive culture can contribute significantly to early intervention and improved mental well-being.

  1. Implement Accommodations and Flexibility

Employers should be proactive in implementing accommodations and flexible work arrangements when necessary. This might include adjustments to work hours, telecommuting options, or modifying job tasks to better suit the employee’s needs. These accommodations can help employees manage their mental health while continuing to contribute to the organization effectively.

How Workplace Medical Can Assist

At Workplace Medical, we are well-equipped to provide specialized support in mental health claims. Here is how we can assist:

Specialized case managers: We have a team of experienced case managers who specialize in handling mental health claims. Their expertise in this area ensures a nuanced approach to each case. 

Our case managers’ expertise is utilized to establish relationships with service providers, including counsellors, therapists, and specialists, allowing us to offer a network of support to assist employees in their journey toward recovery.

Process-driven expertise: Our process is meticulously designed to provide a step-by-step approach to managing mental health claims. Our streamlined process for managing mental health claims includes: 

  • Tailored return-to-work plans,
  • Fostering a supportive work environment,
  • Providing mental health training,
  • Offering flexible work arrangements,
  • Thorough documentation and reporting
  • Ensuring legal compliance.

This approach combines precision and compassion, supporting employees on their journey to recovery.

At Workplace Medical Corp., we are committed to providing comprehensive and specialized support for mental health cases, offering a range of resources, expertise, and a network of service providers to facilitate successful employee reintegration into the workplace.

Ready to enhance your approach to mental health claims? Request a consultation with our specialists to discuss your unique needs.


Canadian employees report workplace stress as primary cause of mental health concerns – Mental Health Commission of Canada (1)