One of your employees, let’s call him “Dave,” is back at work two months after having a heart attack.

As his HR contact, you’ve reached out to ensure his return is successful by talking with him about his medical restrictions or limitations, if he needs breaks in his schedule and identifying any temporary or modified job restrictions that may be necessary.

But then, after just a few weeks back at work, Dave’s manager notices he is having trouble concentrating, and has spent a lot of time withdrawing from other employees. After checking in with Dave, Dave’s manager wonders if the lack of concentration and fatigue may signal a larger issue: depression.

[Image credit: Fotolia]
[Image credit: Fotolia]

Mental health or anxiety disorders, such as depression, can often occur after the personal trauma of a serious health problem. This presence of dual conditions (either mental or physical) has a name: comorbidity.

Comorbidity isn’t as rare as you might think. In my work as a mental health consultant, I often see employees whose condition, such as depression, was triggered by a larger medical problem, or health scare, such as cancer or surgery.

To understand why, consider Dave’s journey back to work. In a short time period he faced a very serious health issue and potentially emergency surgery. He then was off work for an extended period of time — something he’d never experienced before — where he had a lot of time to ponder if he’d ever get back to “normal” again.

And that could just be the tip of the iceberg. Other issues also might be occurring simultaneously: sick family members, hospital bills accumulating on top of other existing financial issues — a host of issues that could spiral into a depression diagnosis.

Return-to-work reminders

It’s important to be aware that setbacks can happen after an employee returns to work following a prolonged illness or injury. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

· Don’t focus solely on the physical side of an employee’s recovery — it’s important to keep an eye on their performance and attendance. Presenteeism, the lost productivity resulting from employees working through a medical condition, also can be common.

· Watch for some of the key signs of depression: loss of focus or concentration, reduction in personal care and hygiene, and increased absences or early departures can be indicators of something larger.

· Remind employees of how valuable your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) can be in returning to work — especially in helping treat mental health conditions.

Recognizing that setbacks could occur — physically, mentally or otherwise — is an important component of helping your employee return to work after a significant health issue. Connecting an employee with the proper assistance can be a valuable step in the road to recovery.

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Jeff Guardalabene

Jeff Guardalabene

Guardalabene, PsyD, is senior behavioral health case manager at Standard Insurance Company.