Mental Health & Returning to Work.
For any of us that have had to take time off work because of mental health issues, one of the biggest fears we may have is going back. Whether we have been off for a few weeks, several months or even years, the anxiety that we can experience about returning may actually make us feel worse. But where does this extra anxiety come from? Is it because we don’t feel ready to go back? Is it because we want to remain shut away from our friends and colleagues? Do we secretly want to avoid returning to a “normal” routine that may make us feel better? In most cases the answer is probably a resounding “No”!
The fear and anxiety that we experience is likely linked to our concern about what other people will think about us and the fact that we’ve had to take time off. It is a well known fact that despite the statistic that 1 in 4 adults in the UK will suffer from a mental health condition, there is still a lot of stigma attached to those of us who have taken time off to get better. Words such as “lazy”, “weak”, “unstable” and even “crazy” get bandied about by people that don’t fully understand what it’s like to live with a mental health illness; all of which feed into the individual’s already fragile self esteem and belief systems making the task of returning to work an even more daunting task.
Although there are some companies and organisations out there that may want to help their employees return to work and will stay in contact with them while they are off, there are many that don’t show such care and compassion. People we may think of as friends may completely ignore us while we are absent from work, either because they don’t know what to say or because they don’t feel comfortable talking to us. Yet again this just adds to the anxiety and self doubt – it feels like we’ve done something else wrong and now the support systems we may have had in place at work will no longer be there when we return. Bosses may be more concerned about how stable we will be when we return to work, worrying about any adjustments they need to make and how they will affect them and their businesses which leads to us feeling like a burden. Or there may just be ignorant people who believe that anyone with a mental health condition shouldn’t be in a work place and who manage to make us feel unwanted and not good enough.
Unless you’ve been in this position you may not understand how much strength and courage it takes to take that leap of faith and risk returning to work. It’s not about our abilities to do the job; we will have worked hard to get back to a healthy place where we feel we can start living our lives again. It’s not that we are afraid that we might relapse or that the stress of returning might be too much for us to handle. It’s about being afraid of how we are going to be perceived and treated by other people when we do go back. But what we need to remember is that recovering from a mental health illness is as valid as recovering from a broken leg or any physical illness...the time we have taken off is so that we can heal and come back feeling better and more prepared to do what we need to every day. We want to be useful, productive members of society. We want to be part of a team. We want to earn money and be able to enjoy life again. We want to be “us” again. But are we really going to be given the chance or will the “mental health stigma” remain with us forever?
If you are someone thinking about returning to work remember that the time you have taken off was necessary. You deserve time to heal and to focus on what you need – that is nothing to be ashamed off. If on the other hand you are a colleague of someone who has been off work and you haven’t heard from them for a while, why not drop them a text to ask how they are doing. The simple act of reaching out may make the challenge of returning to work feel less overwhelming for them.
Remember we are all individuals with our own individual struggles. We can’t know what anyone else is feeling or experiencing unless they tell us. I leave you with this thought, is compassion over judgement the right way for us to go?