It’s common to have questions about what to expect when you get back to work.
We’ve put together some practical advice and information for you, to provide reassurance and help you return to work with confidence.
Usually the only change to your income is an increase. Any change to your benefit will depend on the work you choose. We work closely with Work and Income and ACC and it’s our job to make sure you have all the information to support you through this process.
It can be quite daunting returning to work when you’ve taken time off to improve your mental health. But you don’t have to apologise or justify being away, any more than you would if you were recovering from an accident or operation.
In the midst of a mental health crisis, people sometimes say or do things they wouldn’t otherwise say or do. If this has happened, then you may feel the need to rebuild relationships. But, very often, your colleagues will just be glad to see you back at work, and you should try to accept that.
People are more likely to have been busy with their own lives and work, rather than preoccupied with why you have been off sick or what led up to it.
- Keep in touch with colleagues on a social basis.
- Ask to be on the mailing list for any staff bulletins or in-house magazines so that you can keep up with developments in your workplace or industry.
- Drop into work before starting back to say hello to colleagues and re-familiarise yourself.
- Ask if you could have a gradual build-up to full hours (just as you might expect after breaking a leg or a major operation).
- Ask your employer to consider short-term (or even permanent) changes to your job or hours, if you feel this is what you need.
The things that help promote good mental health are good practice for any employer. Some you may be able to organise for yourself, others might require action, or at least agreement, with your employer.
The key to negotiating with your employer is to think creatively about what will enable you to do your job effectively. Here are some examples:
- using voicemail to take messages (without slowing down the overall response time) if phone calls make you anxious
- a quiet workspace to avoid distractions and aid concentration, or being able to work from home
- changing your supervisor, if another would be more flexible
- restructuring a job or temporarily reallocating some of the duties (for example, ‘frontline’ work)
- using email when face-to-face contact is too stressful
- flexible hours to accommodate therapy, medical appointments, rush-hour pressures or the morning drowsiness associated with some medicines
- on-the-job support, or permission for a support person to come in or to be contacted during work hours
- permission to take time out when distressed: this could just be a few minutes away from your workstation, going out for some air or having a short rest
- a workstation by a window, if you have seasonal affective disorder.
You are the best judge of what is going to be most useful for you. Ask someone involved in your care, or your Workwise employment consultant, to help you think through the possibilities. You can also ask them to provide support when you talk to your employer.
If you are worried about your mental health, or other people are expressing concerns, you may want to get professional help.
This is not giving in, it’s taking action. If you work for a large organisation, they may have an occupational health service. Someone in the workplace is not only easier to access, but has the advantage of understanding the organisation and being an ally in dealing with your supervisor.
However, if you do not feel secure enough in your job to approach them, or there is no service available, you may want to talk to your GP, a counsellor, or your mental health team. You may need a little time off work; and sickness absence with mental health problems is just as valid as that for any physical health problems.
For many people, what matters is knowing they don’t have to hide distress, and they can get on with their job without feeling pressured to continue if there are times when they need to stop or slow down.
If you need another person to help you recognise when you are overdoing it, you could discuss this with a trusted colleague. Talk about what they need to be aware of (your early warning signs), and what kind of support you would welcome.
Stress is an individual experience. What stresses one person may not be stressful for another. Learn to recognise what helps you work well and what you find stressful in the work environment.
If you feel stressed, there are actions you can take to improve your work life.
Taking control – things you can do for yourself to manage stress
- Develop good relationships with your colleagues so you can build a network of support.
- Talk to someone you trust, at work or outside of work, about what upsets you or makes you feel stressed. This is not a sign of weakness; it’s taking responsibility for your wellbeing.
- Treat colleagues with the respect and consideration you want from them.
- Communicate if you need help.
- Be assertive, say no if you can’t take on extra demands.
- Be realistic – you don’t have to be perfect all the time.
- Write a list of what needs to be done; it only takes a few minutes and can help you prioritise, focus and get things in perspective. It can also feel satisfying to tick items off once they have been done.
- If everything starts to feel overwhelming, take a deep breath. Try and get away from your desk or situation for a few minutes – get a drink or go to the toilet.
- Try and take a walk or get some fresh air during the day. Exercise and daylight are beneficial to mental as well as physical health.
- Make sure you drink enough water and that you eat during the day to maintain your energy levels.
- Learn some relaxation techniques.
- Work regular hours and take the breaks and holidays you’re entitled to. If things are getting too much, book a day off or a long weekend.
- Try not to work long hours or take work home with you. Working longer hours regularly does not generally lead to better results.
- Maintain a healthy work-life balance by nurturing your outside relationships, interests and the abilities your job does not use.
Preventing stress with the help of your employer
- Make your physical work environment as comfortable and appropriate to your work needs as you can. If necessary, get the help of a health and safety representative.
- Discuss your workload or the organisation of your work with your manager or supervisor. Get feedback on your work. Discuss setting realistic goals and how you can solve any problems you are having. If you can’t resolve problems in this way, talk to the human resources department or trade union representative.
- Make sure you know how your work fits in with the organisation’s goals and objectives so that you can understand the purpose of your work.
- If you have difficulty with rush-hour traffic, or need to leave work early some days to get to a support group or fit in with child care, discuss the possibility of flexible working hours.
- Make use of the support already on offer: some organisations provide employee assistance programmes providing free advice and counselling; others have internal systems such as co-worker support.
If you are going through a mental health crisis or breakdown, whether or not it’s caused by work stress, it will be experienced in your working life.
If you can identify what triggers your stress, it is a lot easier to find the right coping strategies. Keep a diary of what happens when you get distressed, including how you felt and reacted, so you can cope better the next time that situation arises, or learn to avoid that type of situation.
Ways of coping
These are just some examples, it may take a while to find what works for you. When you know what you need you can start talking with your employer about the things that will assist you to help yourself feel better and get back to working.
- A brief time-out period when you are distressed can restore calm, redirect your attention and allow you to continue working.
- You may need a quiet place away from colleagues and clients to shout or cry.
- You may prefer someone to be with you to help calm you down, or just listen.
- You could learn therapeutic techniques using breathing or meditation, or exercises that improve your energy.
The law says you have a right not to be discriminated against in employment on grounds of race, gender, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation or mental health issue.
The law requires employers not to treat employees or applicants with experience of mental illness less favourably than other people.
Employers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’; in other words take reasonable steps to change work environments or arrangements that put a person with mental health issues at a substantial disadvantage. The law applies to training, promotion and recruitment, and outlaws victimisation of people bringing complaints.
You can ask for adjustments at the point when you need them, even if you did not volunteer information about your mental health problems earlier. However, if you were asked directly about your health record when you applied for a job, concealing information could be grounds for dismissal.
Some people say you should be open about mental illness. Others advise against it, where there is a choice. Some recommend waiting until the employer has formed an impression of you based on your abilities and character, not on their preconceptions. It’s up to you to decide, based on what you know.
Some companies have positive policies on disability and equality at work, which should mean that being open about your mental health is less of a risk.
It’s worth considering that an employer only has to make adjustments for needs that they know about. If you want your employer to understand your needs, you will have to make sure that someone in a responsible position knows what they are. This could be your manager or the human resources department.
If you do decide to tell, think about how and when to do it, how much information you want to give, what kind of information to share, and who to share it with. For example, the human resources department may know your diagnosis, but they don’t have to tell your supervisor or workmates.
You don’t have to go into really personal details; focus on what you need for the job. Employers’ concerns tend to arise out of assumptions about poor work performance. They want to know if you can do the job and will get along with customers or clients and the rest of the team. If you can show that your objective is to get the job done, this should go a long way to reassuring them. Being straightforward and unembarrassed about your history will help them put it into perspective.
Potential risks of sharing something about your mental health history include:
- not getting the job
- being teased or harassed by other employees
- being assumed to be a less productive member of the team
- having fewer opportunities for career development
- being treated as more vulnerable than other employees, or having everything (anger, excitement, time off sick, or a grievance) associated with your mental illness
- coming under closer scrutiny than other employees and having to work harder to gain the same respect.
Potential benefits of sharing information are:
- being open about it can encourage others in the same situation
- keeping it secret may be too stressful, or against your beliefs
- creating a stronger basis to request adjustments to your job or work environment
- it could create an opportunity to involve an outside adviser or support person, who could see you at work or speak directly with your employer
- it could make it easier to go into work at times when your symptoms are greater
- it enables you to enlist the support of your colleagues.