Okay, so I’m going to start by quoting some figures: 1 in 4 people will have to stay off work this year due to mental health and 50% of long-term absenteeism is due to mental health issues. Now I know for some that might be surprising but for others, they will also add so what? How can this information help me? Well, by simply knowing you are not alone can bring comfort. It’s also a high number and not surprisingly it’s why there is more of a call for employers to be so much more aware of the effects stress, for one thing, can impact their employee’s health. Employers are being urged to take necessary steps to enact steps to reduce workplace stress and mental health issues, and not just because of how it impacts their bottom line and possible law-suits, but also the impact putting these steps into place will have on productivity and out of the box thinking that can occur as a result.
So you’ve decided to return to work? My first piece of advice to you is: preparation is key.
Your thought process is going to kick in with some very valid questions, I know that your self-esteem and confidence has been affected, and you may feel that you are no longer competent when it comes to doing your job. You’ll be worried about how you will cope, will the workload be too much and trigger a relapse? Will you be discriminated against or will colleagues gossip?
You need to remember you are in control of your life and you need to think about what you want now in your life. So, with that in mind before you return to work you may wish to ask yourself and your employer some questions about:
- Think about whether this job is right for you any longer? Would you be better off with a less stressful job?
- Think about taking flexible hours – you might like to return part-time or job sharing options or start later in the day if you’re sleepy from medication in the mornings.
- Asking for flexible hours can also help with appointments, such as medical or counselling ones you may need. Is your job going to allow for this to happen?
- Having a separate office may be heaven for you now or if you had one in the past you may prefer to work in an open office situation, again can your job offer this?
- Being offered written instructions rather than verbal ones may be better for you now, can you employer accommodate this?
- Sick day and sick pay arrangements, you will need to know these and can they be flexible about this?
- Getting a mentor or buddy support system in place can also be helpful – support from a colleague in the short or long-term. Again can your employer do this for you?
- Having a place you can go for a break when needed to unwind or meditate within your place of work can be very helpful to you but will also benefit others also, as they may wish to avail of this place too.
- Will your job allow for a phased return or are you expected to hit the ground running? This may be too much stress for you all at once.
But just know most people find going back to work is a positive step and that with the right support it is possible to return to work. Some of the benefits are:
- Helps to promote your recovery.
- Improved your financial situation, this can be in of its self, make life less stressful for you and your family circumstance but it shouldn’t be your only reason for returning to work particularly if it isn’t right for you.
- Increases your confidence and self-esteem and probably more quickly than if you don’t return to work. But again your job must support you and your mental health to do this.
- Creates a feeling of contribution and social inclusion for you.
- A greater sense of identity and purpose in terms of work only.
- Greater independence, particularly financially as I’ve said already.
- Improved general mental health, again only if you receive the necessary support from your employer.
- The opportunity to make friends and get in touch with old friends and colleagues again.
Some steps to take first.
- The first step is to talk to your counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist and GP. Let them know you’ve decided to return to work and take what they say on board. They may already have approached the subject with you, it’s important to have this conversation and get some good advice and tips that you can put in place to support you. You will need their continued support into the future.
- Talk to your employer, long before you decide to get back into the workplace. Keep the dialogue open once your ready keep up to date with the general direction your job or normal workplace had taken during your absence. It’s good to keep in touch with friends and colleagues from work and they’ll keep you up to date in what’s been happening in your absence. Being off work can feel isolating.
- Make sure you have a good self-care and self-soothing in place alongside stress reduction steps such as meditation, exercise, healthy eating plan, medication plan, support from family and friends, counselling plan etc., and almost like a second nature to you before you go back. These will be your fall back plan also if you feel a relapse coming on. You will need plans and systems in place while in work, your life has changed and this will be for the better if you get these plans and systems working for you.
- Arrange a meeting with your employer or/and HR manager. This may be the hardest thing for you to do but it is necessary. You need to be able to return to work knowing you have your employers and supervisors support. I’ve listed above some of the questions you’ll need to ask plus your employer needs to fully understand your illness. Unless they have been affected by this before (probably on a personal level) they will not understand anything about your condition. You need them to at least know and understand the basics. You may wish to bring support with you in the form of a letter from your psychologist or psychiatrist or printed material from the HSE or NHS outlining information they need to know. Remember understanding your own condition equals empowerment to you. Knowing your rights and entitlement also means empowering yourself.
- Ask about a reasonable adjustment to your workplace for you from your employer as well as a phased return to work or flexible hours etc., you may also like to ask your employer about (these questions are not all that can be asked and you may have more as you learn about your own condition):
- Doing things another way, such as allowing someone with social anxiety disorder to have their own desk instead of hot-desking.
- Making physical changes to the workplace you may require.
- Changing the equipment or offering written instructions instead of verbal instructions. The use of assistant technology also.
- Offering employees training opportunities in mental health such as stress reductions etc.
- Offering recreational, quiet rooms and refreshment facilities.
- Making sure employees take breaks and their lunch hour.
- Providing a buddy or mentoring system to all employees especially new ones.
Now That You Have Return To Work What Next?
- Meet with your supervisor and human resources manager to go over your needs before you go back as I discussed above. Make sure these are in place before day one, make sure you also have clearer guidelines for all your work tasks (get these in writing). Ask about how information about your absence will be shared with coworkers and how you will be kept informed about workplace changes etc.
- Make sure to check in with your supervisor (and/or HR manager) on a regular basis to make sure your needs are being met and to make sure your comfortable about all arrangements or if new ones need to be implemented. Your supervisor should really be doing this without you having to go to them, but it’s no harm if you do it and remind them of their obligations.
- Try to create a thriving environment in your workplace. You know what it’s like to have mental health problems, so why not become an advocate to help others and reduce stress and improve mental health in the workplace in general.This can include reasonable adjustment you have made to your work environment, education classes such as in stress reduction, a structured schedule, positive reinforcement, peer support and help from leadership, the list is endless here. It’s great to help other but be your own advocate too.
- Having your psychologist/counsellor/psychiatrist in communication with your employers can be a huge help. But remember you’re in charge here and this should be for your benefit. Not all employers are accommodating when employees return to work so having your psychologist etc., on your side and working for your benefit will help here.
- Always report discrimination or harassment to your human resources department. remember just because you have a mental health problem doesn’t mean your rights and entitlement went out the window nor do you have to put up with harassment or anything else just to keep your job.
- Make sure your systems and plans are still in place and working for you. If there aren’t make sure you put them in place quickly and also make sure to keep your appointments and ask for help as soon as possible rather than waiting. This will help minimise a risk of relapse.
So Your Old Job Wasn’t For You What’s Next?
You have all your plans and systems in place and have decided that your old job and workplace isn’t right to aid your recovery. This may be because of the workload, work practices of your employer or it’s just too high stress and would only aid a relapse. So what’s next?
Looking for a new job after mental health illness can be difficult, I’ve already discussed why above – self-confidence et., – but let’s make this a positive step, think about it as a new life change for the better with you in charge of your life and living it your way. So now some questions you might ask yourself:
- Where would you like to work?
- What kind of work would you like to do?
- What type of support do you need?
- How ill it affect your financial situation, including any benefits you’re getting?
- If a full-time paid job isn’t an option open to you, what about part-time work, job sharing or flexi-hours or volunteering? Volunteering can have many benefits including: improve self-esteem, new education or job experience in a new role plus may help you gain a paid position in a company.
You should get to know your rights and the law
You may be worried that when you apply for a job, you will be discriminated against if you admit that you have, or have had, mental or emotional health problems. But it’s illegal for employers to ask health or health-related questions before making a job offer. It’s also illegal to discriminate against people with any kind of health condition or disability, including mental health issues. I’m not a solicitor so you should really check into all this yourself through either asking a solicitor for advice, you can ask the Flac solicitors for free or looking up the law. Some websites that support and work for people with mental health problems offer some more detailed advice here than I do.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family, friends, local employment agencies such as Intreo or colleges can offer you advise about getting a job and help you prepare a CV and cover letter.
Maybe its education or retraining your into for a whole new carer you want, some colleges now offer employment alongside retraining into a whole new career. It’s okay to return to education at any age and don’t forget to check into benefits and grants. Social Welfare (Ireland) can offer you advice about these courses and grants.
In everything I’ve discussed above, you need to remember you are the one in charge now, you get to decide what you want to do next with your life. Having a mental illness can offer us an opportunity to step back and take stock of what is important in ous lives. Making any decisions about what we do next should come after a long conversation with others, family, friends, counsellor etc., but also it’s about listening to what we – our bodies and minds – want to happen next.