Dr Judith Grant is a highly experienced wellbeing professional, with over 20 years of experience in public, community and corporate health. Before moving into consultancy she was latterly director of health and wellbeing at construction company Mace. Before this she was group head of occupational health and wellbeing at the Royal Mail Group.
But what makes her viewpoint so unique and insightful is, not just her wealth of experience and qualifications, but also her real lived experience of taking time off work due to ill health, having contracted long Covid. So, as well as helping design the system to support employees who return to work after a health related absence, she has also experienced first hand what has been helpful and areas for improvement.
We asked her to recount her learnings from both her professional and personal perspective.
What’s it’s like working in wellbeing and being off sick?
“I struggled being off sick initially because so much of my identity and self-worth was tied up in my job. I finally accepted that I was too sick to be there.
I felt guilty that I was letting people down, but this was a narrative that I created in my own mind and there was no pressure on me to return until I was ready.
When I returned to work after two years off, I had access to a vocational rehabilitation service and I also accessed a coach myself externally. I was anxious as I lost a lot of my confidence and I didn’t know what to expect, given the world changed a lot through the pandemic. My external coach helped me validate the way I was feeling and helped me be patient with myself.
Scheduling activities to support rehabilitation
As for the vocational rehab team, they helped me look at scheduling of activities like ensuring there was no back to back meetings at first and varying tasks that were screen-based with reading documents offline. We also looked at how and when to increase my work hours, schedule in rest breaks and I was able to work from home until I was ready for the occasional office visit.
In terms of returning to work following absence, the ‘welcome back’ meeting is really important. Good conversations are one of the more powerful well-being tools! It works best if you make it a time and place agreed by both the employee and the line manager. If it’s been a long absence this is even more critical so the employee feels this is a collaborative return, rather than something that is being ‘done’ to them.
I’ve heard great stories and bad but my favourite was a fantastic mail centre manager who would meet the employee in the car park on their first day back and walk them into the offices. I know myself how nerve wracking it is coming back after a long absence and to have your manager literally by your side for that is a powerful thing.
The role of wellbeing action plans
I really like the use of wellbeing action plans, too, and also reasonable adjustment passports. I’ve seen these used really well as part of vocational rehabilitation programmes, or through occupational health.
Often with conditions like long Covid which I have, you will be returning to work without a full recovery not knowing when, or if, you will recover. A wellbeing action plan can be a useful tool between the line manager and employee for the employee. It should detail what a good day looks like for them with their condition, and what a bad day looks like, and the degrees in between. It can also outline potential signs or triggers that the manager and employee should be aware of. This gives the line manager a window into living with that condition.
It can also be really useful having an occupational health assessment to help with what adjustments may be needed. Giving line managers the confidence to have good conversations on wellbeing means that adjustments can also come out of a conversation with the employee.
The role of self-care
Encouraging an employee in their self-care is just as important as work adjustments. All the self-care techniques I developed to manage my illness were also applicable in my return to work: patience, self-compassion, asking for help when I need it, pacing my energy and activities, good sleep and nutrition and keeping to a routine.
Lots of employers have proactive services for employees to access nowadays like mental health apps, reduced cost gym memberships, financial well-being programmes, etc. Being able to signpost to these is important. Many organisations may have these benefits in place but employees don’t know how to access them.
How easy are your services to access?
The brain fog and fatigue that accompany many illnesses also means that organisations need to consider how easy these services are to understand and access. Being ill can involve so much medical paperwork, workplaces can really help reduce the strain on employees by making their policies, procedures and support easy to understand.
We did a big piece of work at the Royal Mail, for example, where we process-mapped every single health process in the business across many disciplines including H&S, HR, Reward, OH, and others. This was so we understood exactly how they worked, how some overlapped, what needed improving and which needed communicating.
Of course, not all employers can afford to offer employee benefit packages but having a knowledge of other support to signpost employees to is vital. For instance, ‘Access to Work’ is a service all employers should know about.
What a good return to work programme looks like
A good return to work programme will be flexible, designed with the support of occupational health, the employee and the employer. It recognises that a textbook eight weeks of increasing hours every week in a systematic way will not be for everyone. For fluctuating illnesses, where you have good and bad days and weeks, flexibility is needed.
Long Covid has hundreds of associated symptoms which is one of the challenges with understanding and treating it. Mental health issues can be a symptom as well as a result of the condition, but everyone is different.
The trauma lives on
For many of us, we won’t forget the trauma of being left at home during the first weeks of the pandemic unable to breathe and the stress that comes with heart palpitations, fatigue, neurological and muscular issues and so on. You’re often mourning the life you had before the illness and this can inevitably can lead to anxiety and depression in some people.
Having a relationship of trust with your employer can help. It’s important to support the employee as an individual, using the organisations support framework, and understand that we are all different and the way illnesses manifest, and how we cope or want to talk about them, varies.”
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