Return to work after time off for mental illness: what do my employers think of me?
I have been off work a number of times for prolonged periods due to mental illness and always find it difficult because concerns about my employerís views are always prevalent, which mixed with my own doubts about my confidence, ability and my readiness to return to work, makes things confusing and I often find myself wondering if itís worth all the aggro.
There are no easy answers but hereís my personal story: the thoughts that go through my mind and what Iíve found useful.
I have found that striking the right balance between disclosing what the problem is and concealing it is a very fine line that has really worried me. Some colleagues can find it awkward once mental illness is raised and I often think that on return to work theyíll expect me to be a mass murderer; others just feel awkward and donít know what to say at all, sometimes making the situation worse, often without knowing.
I now agree with my employer what colleagues will be told whilst I am away and give them some facts to ensure that colleagues have a basic level of understanding as to why I am off. I find that if I am open about the problem from the start, it generally makes it easier to have conversations with colleagues on my return as they too feel less awkwardÖbut this is not easy. At first I wasnít at all comfortable with this, after all, you donít want everyone knowing your personal business, and it took me three periods of substantial sickness absence before I felt comfortable disclosing the truth to my colleagues.
Mental illness is different to a broken leg: there are not always clearly visible signs and I find my employer rarely gets to grips with my condition and how it affects me. I always worry that by returning to work, even though itís been a longstanding problem, my employer will be convinced that this time Iím fixed. This couldnít be further from the truth and communicating how I am still affected is difficult when it is at odds with my employerís perceptions and experiences of the world. This brings with it extra concerns about what reasonable adjustment is, and how flexible theyíll actually be in facilitating my return to work.
I try to keep in contact. My manager will call from time to time to inform me whatís been happening and whatís coming up. Sometimes due to the severity of the illness, I find that I donít want to speak to her at all, so in these cases I have given permission for her to contact a relative who can pass the information on later in a non-threatening way, avoiding the formalities of work conversations, at a time to suit me. I dictate the frequency of these updates and I think a good manager should be sensitive to the times youíre not in a good place mentally to talk.
I always find return to work discussions scary, but equally I find them useful in establishing how things can be moved forwards and I have found it makes the return to work easier if you plan a strategy with your employer rather than trying to muddle along on your own. It can help identify what caused you to go off work (maybe work or personal related) and if any adjustments can be made at work to make things easier moving forwards long term. I find it helpful to have a think about whether I feel adjustments would be helpful, what these would be, and the reasons they should be made. I also remember that I donít need to attend this meeting on my own. I usually take my trade union representative, but on occasion have taken a colleague that I trust and will support me.
In some cases, especially when Iíve been off a long time, it might be that I suggest a phased/flexible return to work. Whilst on the one hand I usually reach a point where I want to get back to work, the whole concept of it can be a real sticking point. For example, I might work part time the first few weeks, or agree a later start time to help ease me back into the swing of things.
Sometimes I have found that these adjustments can be agreed directly with my employer. In other cases, the occupational health team has been contacted. Occupational health assessments throw up their own worries, but ultimately they are there to provide some objective advice about how best to assist me in the workplace. They might suggest long term adjustments to manage my illness such as: agreeing to start and finish times which are more manageable, changes to my workspace, allowing more flexibility to work at home, or perhaps a change of job role.
Remember, for support TheSite.org can help: