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4 key things about returning to work when having mental health problems

Friday, 17 October 2014 Simon

Simon is a 47 year old solicitor who has worked in the legal profession for 22 years.  Today he shares 4 key things about returning to work when having mental health problems

Some people cannot work, or work part-time, and certainly it’s not the intent of this piece to make anyone feel excluded. However, the majority of us spend about a third of our day at work. And when combined with the time we spend sleeping, preparing and travelling to our workplace, the whole work experience forms a significant part of who we are.

Therefore when you experience mental health problems strong enough to prevent you from being to be able to function at work, there’s a huge risk of thinking and feeling that you’ve lost a really big part of your identity. Perhaps you might feel that you might not get that ‘you’ back, and this can lead to further cycles of negative thoughts and emotions. So what can be done?

I’ve had two significant absences from work as a result of mental health problems. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that these have occurred because I drive myself hard and end up burning out. My work ethic makes me a great asset when healthy and supported by my work environment, but a potential liability when not. I know I’m not alone. But I’ve also made two successful returns to work after those absences, and supported colleagues and employees experiencing problems too.

Most of the workplace practise I’ve encountered has been good – but not all of it. So here I’ve listed four simple, easy-to-do things that managers (and perhaps others at work) can make the return-to-work experience better.

1 - Have the conversation

Fostering an open and supportive attitude to mental health across a team is both a preventative measure, and one to support those returning to work. I felt afraid of bringing these topics up, and needed to be sensitively led by my managers. The ability to address emotional issues considerately and unembarrassedly is so important here. Emotional intelligence should be prioritised when recruiting people with line management responsibility.

2 - Help with the work-related issues that affect health problems

I’ve tried to avoid conversations being a therapy session - managers are rarely qualified and don’t have the time. However, they can challenge incorrect thoughts, for example, about how important that deadline really is. More importantly, they can clarify expectations, reallocate work and offer training and support - ‘real’ things that can help. It can help too if they reassure employees that they are to be praised for seeking that support - the employee may be feeling ‘inadequate’ for needing help, and in need of reassurance.

3 - Stay in touch

Don’t forget about someone who goes off sick - they may feel lost and alone. Once when I experienced problems my HR Manager would call me each week during my absence. It was important that there was no pressure put on me to have achieved anything, this would have been counterproductive. Rather, the only agenda was to stay in touch and find out how I was. This anchored me and gave me focus. I only wish that my line manager had been involved too.

4 - Focus on encouragement and empowerment

Help people return to fitness or stay healthy, but don’t mollycoddle or micro-manage them. When experiencing mental health problems, you can become terrified of being ‘incapable’ and being treated as such doesn’t help. Personally, I wanted to be the person I was at work before I was sick. Managers and others at work can provide encouragement and regular feedback that you are still that person - for instance by gently increasing the level of work alongside a reassurance that you have the support of those around you, should you need it.

In most business models, human employees form their largest asset. It is common sense that they need to be maintained and supported, just like premises and machinery and businesses that do will perform better. Yet the incidence of work related stress in rising and costs British employers 70 million working days a year.[1] Becoming effective at preventing and dealing with this will benefit everyone.

 I hope these help and equally I’d be interested to hear other peoples’ thoughts on what helps too!

[1] McCrone et al., Paying the price of mental health care in England to 2026, London: Kings Fund, 2007


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