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November 2, 2015

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Return to work

Return to work

Why do some workers with mental health problems recover swiftly and others stay on sick leave for the long term? Dr. Hanneke van Gestel’s research offers some insights.

B9AKMXMental health problems are an important issue in occupational health care because of their negative impact on work capacity and productivity. These problems, such as depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders and stress-related complaints can lead to sick leave and long-lasting work disability.

In the UK, for example, stress and mental health problems are one of the biggest causes of long-term absence. In the Netherlands, about one third of people are receiving disability benefits because of mental health problems.

Since mental health problems are a major cause of rising disability benefit expenditures, these problems are not only an individual burden, but also a growing problem for employers and society in general.

Unfortunately, to date, little research has been done on what happens during the process of sick leave and work resumption. Moreover, research is lacking on what works and what does not work during the sick leave and return to work process.

Our research project intends to gain insight into what factors hamper or facilitate return to work for workers with mental health problems. The research also aims to gain an insight in what happens before and after return to work, and in the experiences of workers on short-term sick leave and workers on long-term sick leave.

Since previous research has shown that the attitude of the sick-listed worker has great impact on his or her actual return to work, the research focuses especially on the workers’ perspective. It is important to comprehend the workers’ own point of view and to discover how they perceive their ability and needs to return to work. This point of view will be explored by interviews with workers.

Moreover, the innovative approach – with interviews before and after return to work – will generate comprehensive insight in all factors that facilitate return to work. Experiences of workers on long-term sick leave will be compared with experiences of workers on short-term sick leave.

In addition, the perspectives of mental health professionals, occupational health specialists, general physicians and supervisors on return to work will be explored by group sessions with professionals.

The research will be conducted in the Netherlands because of the unique sickness and disability system in the Netherlands with a strict, state-enforced schedule for the employer and employee in order to discuss return to work early and on fixed-time points.

The research is funded by IOSH and the lead organisation is Tilburg University, Department Tranzo, collaborating with IOSH. The findings of this research will increase awareness of the factors associated with a rapid return to work and may lead to practical recommendations for supervisors and occupational health specialists.

The project will be completed at the end of 2016. Research papers will be submitted to international journals and the findings will be disseminated among relevant stakeholders such as (occupational) health professionals, workers, employers, policy makers in the UK and the Netherlands. A final full report will be available at IOSH.

For further information, please contact the primary researcher Dr. Hanneke van Gestel at ([email protected]), or the project leaders Dr. Evelien Brouwers ([email protected]) or Dr. Margot Joosen ([email protected]).

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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