Despite the fact that one in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, negotiating a return to work can be difficult.
One in four of us will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, according to estimates from The Mental Health Foundation. Mental health problems range from the more common (although not necessarily any less severe) depression and anxiety (affecting between 8% and 12% of the population in any year), to severe mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (affecting between 1-2% of the population) or personality disorders (affecting between 4-5% of the population).
But despite these statistics, a lack of understanding – as well as stigma and discrimination – around mental health makes returning to work after illness even more difficult and stressful.
Colleagues, managers or HR staff who are unfamiliar with mental illness can make wrong assumptions about the risk of a relapse, or believe that a diagnosis means sufferers are a danger to themselves or others.
Nine in 10 service users of the The Stigma Shout project reported a negative impact of stigma on their lives. This can range from excluding employees from events and team meetings, or not treating them like other work colleagues, through to stigmatising their illness. This is particularly true in the case of schizophrenia, where only 8% of service users are in work, although many more could and would like to work, as reported by the Schizophrenia Commission.
Charlotte Walker, whose blog is winner of the charity Mind’s Media Award, says being open with her employer about her illness meant she could set out a reasonable adjustment plan and show good faith in trying to get back to work.
Transparency helps managers to deal with mental health issues and to discuss reasonable adjustments. Most solutions are cheap and easy to implement, and can range from allowing short absences from work, changing the hours of work or even making sure employees take their full lunch break.
Because symptoms of mental illnesses can be different for different people, it’s also important to work with your employer on what sort of adjustments will be helpful to you. For example, having your own office might be important for one person but isolating for another, says Charlotte.
Developing a recovery plan can help managers better understand when an employee is becoming unwell and allows them to intervene on a practical level, advises Charlotte. Painting a picture of what sort of person you are and explaining to your manager how to recognise symptoms of illness means they can then offer concrete help – without being condescending.
Talking to your manager and colleagues
A general lack of knowledge around mental health can mean that people are often frightened to address it – and means that you can feel “forgotten” while you’re away. Depending on the attitudes in your workplace, you might be ignored completely or only get official-type emails from your manager, who is afraid of saying the wrong thing or who doesn’t want to get into hot water with the Equality Act.
Staying in contact with your manager and close colleagues (even if via email) can help prepare the ground for your return-to-work meeting, when you’ll be able to discuss a phased return and adjustments face-to-face.
Learn as much as you can
Perceptions of mental illness vary. While bipolar is portrayed in the media as an illness typically suffered by “creatives”, depression is often seen as the “acceptable face”, says Sue Sibbald, who works with the NHS in Sheffield, training staff and people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BDP). Being able to share what your diagnosis means can help to dispel myths and reduce stigma, she says.
Researching your illness and recovery options is also important when there’s such huge disparity in the amount of support offered from one NHS trust to another. If yours has limited provision, you can buy therapy if you can afford it, says Charlotte. She also mentions mental health “recovery colleges” are starting up, with course catalogues offering help on how to improve through meditationand art therapy, or even on applying and interviewing for jobs. Check your NHS Trust website for details.
Know your rights
Not all employers are up-to-date with legislation or flexible enough to agree to reasonable adjustments, so make sure you know whether your condition is classed as a disability under the 2010 Equality Act.
Your union can be an invaluable source of help in liaising with your employer or HR department, and advising you on your rights. In addition, union reps can sit in on meetings with your employer and check that you aren’t being managed down or out.
Get emotional and practical support
Being off work due to mental illness can make you feel isolated and vulnerable, so getting emotional and practical support helps with recovery. Charities such as Mind, Rethink and SANE offer a range of support and advice (including dealing with benefit questions), while Twitter is also a great way to connect with others in the same situation. For example, Sue set up the weekly #BPDChat, enabling people to share experiences and support. Blogs are another source of information and support.
Ease yourself back into work
Because having a mental health condition is tiring and your energy levels will be lower, go back to work slowly with a phased return, says Sue.
You might also find that volunteering for one day a week can help to rebuild confidence. Freelance work can also give you more flexibility if medication and treatment is causing side-effects, advises Charlotte.
This article first appeared on The Guardian on 27 January, 2014.