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What can I do for you? Line managers’ behaviors to support return to work for workers with common mental disorders

Karina Nielsen (University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK)
Jo Yarker (Birkbeck College, London, UK) (Affinity Health at Work, London, UK)

Journal of Managerial Psychology

ISSN: 0268-3946

Article publication date: 4 October 2022

Issue publication date: 26 January 2023




Sustainable return to work remains challenging for workers returning after long-term sick leave due to common mental disorders (CMDs): stress, anxiety and depression. Line managers play a significant role in supporting returned workers. Therefore, the purpose of this qualitative study was to examine the supportive behaviors of line managers in supporting returned workers.


The authors conducted a longitudinal study with up to three semi-structured interviews with 20 line managers with experience managing returned workers. In these interviews, the authors asked questions about the supportive behaviors line managers enacted to support workers and the role of the context. The authors conducted reflexive thematic analysis.


The analyses revealed five key strategies, including managing workload, flexible working time arrangements, location of work, mental health check-ups and long-term support. The interviewed line managers reported their own lived experiences and that being aware of the limitations of their role, together with training and support from senior management and human resources (HR), enabled them to provide appropriate support.

Practical implications

The five strategies and the barriers and facilitators to implementing these may enable HR to develop policies and procedures to support line managers, including training of line managers.


This is the first study in the UK on line managers’ behaviors to support workers who have returned to work after a period of long-term sickness absence due to CMDs. The identification of such behaviors is paramount to developing organizational policies and practices. The question, however, remains whether employees see these behaviors as effective.



Funding: This project was funded by the ESRC Productivity Insights Network grant no: ES/R007810/1.


Nielsen, K. and Yarker, J. (2023), "What can I do for you? Line managers’ behaviors to support return to work for workers with common mental disorders", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 38 No. 1, pp. 34-46.



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