Going Back to Work After a Mental Health Crisis

Work is among the biggest stressors in our lives, but when you add in a mental illness — which includes substance use disorders and behavioral addictions — for a lot of us it’s simply too much to manage. What starts as a mental health day here and there can turn into a medical leave of several weeks or longer. Depression alone is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays every year, at a cost of $17 to $44 billion to employers.

When you do have to miss work — maybe for a significant length of time — because you’re dealing with depression, paralyzing anxiety, even a psychotic break of some kind, going back to your job can be difficult, to say the least. You may be wondering if your supervisors and co-workers are unsure or nervous about how to talk to you or if you’ll encounter stigma and discrimination. You may also want to maintain your privacy about what happened, while also not fueling the rumor mill. When one former employee of a large corporation returned after a one-month leave for depression and anxiety — stress that resulted from her job — she says she felt picked on. “My colleagues seemed to have decided that I was trouble rather than realizing I had a newly diagnosed illness and I now had medication and was trying to deal with it,” she recalls.

Going Back to Work After a Mental Health CrisisSo how do you manage the process of re-entry to your job and also what may be a punishing workload, as well as workplace social obligations? First, realize that any trepidation you’re feeling about heading back to the workday grind is absolutely normal, says Thomas W. Britt, PhD, professor of social and organizational psychology at Clemson University, in Clemson, South Carolina, and co-author of the recently-published book, Thriving Under Stress: Harnessing Demands in the Workplace. “Many individuals who suffer a mental health crisis and have to leave their job are very hesitant to go back to work,” says Dr. Britt, adding that his first recommendation is to talk to your therapist, if you have one, well before you start back. “If an individual’s job is a central component of their identity — [some people] define themselves in terms of their job — I recommend [bringing up] the return [to work] during therapy and having a goal of focusing on developing skills to handle the demands likely to be encountered when he or she returns to work.” And even if you’re not a “I live to work” type, your therapist can still be a powerful ally in teaching you specific strategies that address the demands you’re likely to encounter in your role, he adds. “For example, if the person’s job is characterized by work overload, the therapist can work with the employee to develop coping skills to address that demand,” says Britt. So your therapist may teach you learn simple breathing techniques to get you through difficult meetings or presentations to clients, or you might want to ask your boss about easing back into your full workload over a couple of weeks so you don’t parachute right back into a situation that will threaten your mental stability, which may feel very fragile right now.

How Coworkers Can Help

Who you work with is going to have a profound effect — one way or another — on what your first days and weeks back at work are like. “Research shows that a successful transition back to work for employees with mental health problems has a lot to do not only with the motivation of the employee to return to work, but also the support of the employee’s family and co-workers and supervisors in the work environment,” says Britt. “Support from co-workers and supervisors is critical. Many times, employees do not disclose their mental health problem to co-workers and supervisors.” That’s because, of course, lots of us don’t feel those we work with can be trusted with this very personal information. But if you’re lucky enough to work in a place where there’s what Britt calls “trust and a sense of psychological safety” that will naturally make telling others about your crisis and diagnosis a lot easier. Plus, he says, you’ll have “the social support needed to improve the transition back to work.”

Deciding whether or not to tell your boss, HR and/or the people you work side-by-side with is an important decision. “Disclosing the problem can have positive consequences if the employee has understanding co-workers and supervisors,” Britt notes. “Co-workers can either be ‘energizers,’ people who provide you with energy and motivation, or ‘de-energizers,’ people who sap your energy and leave you drained.” If you’re coming back to a huge workload following a mental health crisis, you may need to realize — perhaps for the first time in your career — that your success will depend on a team effort, so reaching out to co-workers for help may be a necessary strategy in order to meet your goals. The more connected you feel to the people you work with, the greater support you will have, of course, which increases not only your ability to meet the demands of your job but also will encourage the connectedness that will improve your overall well-being and help you stay healthy and sober.

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