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Supportive Workplaces Overview

Even though you are providing good jobs, some of your colleagues or workforce are going to experience common health problems. It's inevitable. Most often this will be because of factors outside your control. Yet their problems may well be work-relevant: some will struggle to stay at work, and some of them will need time off. The notion of a supportive workplace is recovering while working.

The trick for you as a colleague, line manager or employer is twofold: (1) recognise those who are struggling with health problems – you want to help them stay at work; (2) quickly spot when someone goes off sick - you need to help them with an early return to work. This is good for them and good for the organisation, but it needs to be well managed. Of course, it is equally important that every worker take personal responsibility for their health.

5 Things You Need to Know About Supportive Workplaces


  • We all get health complaints: mostly they are not caused by work, but work may become difficult in the face of the symptoms – i.e. the health complaint is work-relevant. Sometimes people can cope, sometimes they can’t – it depends on the balance between person, the work and the health complaint. Supporting people with health complaints at work is about getting that balance right. It is not enough to just rely on doctors to help your colleague cope with work.

  • The reason some people have difficulty coping is mostly not that they have a more serious condition or injury, it’s because they face obstacles – things that make it difficult for them to cope. The obstacles fall into 3 categories: the person [beliefs and behaviours]; the workplace [job demands, lack of accommodation], the context [process delays, unhelpful policies]. A supportive workplace is one that helps this person, at this time, with this complaint – it is about recognising and overcoming obstacles.

  • You need to be able to do 3 things: identify obstacles, develop a plan to overcome them, and take the appropriate action. It’s not that complicated, more a matter of common sense. But, it helps if you have the right culture and policies. You need a framework for who does what and when, so good communication is crucial.

  • It is vital to act early, before the obstacles become entrenched. Someone needs to act as a case coordinator or buddy – it could be the line manager. They will work with their colleague to figure out why they might be struggling - identify the obstacles and make a plan to tackle them. You must have a policy for who acts as the buddy – everyone must know who it is and what they can do.

  • Action points: commit to a supportive workplace; provide information and advice (the knowledge); foster early reporting of work-relevant health problems; adopt a can-do approach; engage the person in identifying obstacles and making the work plan; assess the job and offer modified work if needed (just until they are back to normal); contact the doctor if necessary (use a confidentiality waiver); allow graduated return to work plans; keep in touch - monitor progress and revise the plan if there are any setbacks.



Line managers and workers need to be able to:


  1. Recognise when a colleague is struggling to cope with symptoms or injury

  2. Respond to anyone who reports symptoms or is off work

  3. Quickly and easily evaluate someone’s work ability (i.e. how they feel they are coping with work and health)

  4. Identify any obstacles to staying at work or getting back to work

  5. Manage workplace obstacles

  6. Arrange reasonable modifications to the job for a period of time (not for ever)

  7. Help people build up gradually as they recover


I’m a line manager in a small company. We can’t afford formal occ. health cover, but we can still help our colleagues cope with health at work. The senior management took some advice and introduced a simple protocol for supporting colleagues with work-relevant health complaints. The goal is to help them stay at work or get back quickly if they have to take time off. It’s my job to put it all into action. Basically, I coordinate the process – I act as a case manager, a buddy if you like. I get informed as soon as a colleague is struggling or off work. We talk it through and look for the obstacles. We work out what my colleague can do, with a little help. If necessary, I liaise with the doctor or therapist (we use a simple confidentiality waiver) to help me figure out how best to help my colleague with work tasks whilst they are getting treatment. I devise the Plan and timeline with my colleague and we sort out any temporary work modifications as a team. I use information leaflets to help explain things and bust the myths. I keep an eye on them just in case there are any setbacks. It’s all common sense really - it works well!

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