Work plays an important part in our mental health. It adds to our sense of identity, satisfaction and self-worth. The longer a person is off the job because of absence rooted in a mental health issue, the less likely they are to return. The fear of being judged, having to explain the absence, feeling guilty and fitting back in are all very real.
Here’s Michael’s story of his successful return to his workplace after battling depression.
How did you know it was time to return to work?
It was a combination of things. I felt better than I had in years after working with a mental health professional, plus I listened to the advice and guidance I received. When I initially thought I was ready, my counsellor recommended taking a bit more time off. He was right. I also worked with the return to work program available through our organization’s insurer. We developed a plan to follow which recommended taking a graduated approach back to full-time hours.
What was your biggest fear about going back?
I was worried about how people would look at me; how they would judge me.
How did you prepare for your return?
I read articles given to me by my healthcare professional and I talked with close friends about it. Most of all, I made a decision to share the reason I had been off with my coworkers. No sweeping it under the carpet – I planned to lay it all on the table.
What helped you the most during your first few days back on the job?
My employer was supportive and made accommodations that enabled me to make a graduated return, so I wasn’t overwhelmed with a full workload right away. We also reviewed my work station and modified it to improve the physical environment to help me move forward.
One thing that made a difference was the knowledge that I had a finite amount of work to do during those first few days. I wasn’t full-time right away, so that really helped while I made the adjustment.
Taking regular minibreaks when I first returned to work really helped. I walked, visited other people or did something different like make a quick personal call. It gave my head a break and when I came back, I found the problem I was tackling looked less intense.
Do you feel because your condition was not physically visible, it would be perceived differently?
Absolutely. Unfortunately, stigma about depression and mental illness still exists. It’s one of the reasons I decided to be open about why I was off – to address the elephant in the room. It quelled rumours and actually opened up dialogue. People came up to me and shared their own experiences with mental health issues.
What’s your best piece of advice for others returning to work after an absence?
Talk to other people! Whether coworkers or family, talk about what’s going on – to someone you know well. The biggest thing is to trust your health professionals and accept that depression is a diagnosed mental illness. My pride got in the way and I tried to tough it out for a year. Be open and honest with experts who can then diagnose you and provide the help you need.
What part did resilience play in your success at returning to the workforce?
I have a renewed ability to recognize warning signs and there are many of them: when normal things don’t give me pleasure and when I’m scared to face people, are just a couple.
Resilience means being able to do something about an issue before it progresses – it’s a lifelong tool. I believe I’ve always had these tools, but I forgot that when in the middle of my depression.
I feel empowered now. I stared at the edge of the black hole, climbed down a bit and then slowly climbed back up. I have a choice now – I realize I have options in my world.