Returning to work when you have a mental health condition

World Mental Health Day 2017 focuses on mental health in the workplace.

Eleven months ago I left the world of freelancing and entered the corporate arena of office cubicles and staff passes, where the majority of “normal working people” resided.

I was a part-timer who worked four out of five days a week, six out of eight hours a day. It was a personal challenge I enthusiastically embraced. Returning to work was my recovery milestone.

In some ways, it was also a social experiment to see how people would react to my mental health disclosure. Nobody knew me nor The Tapestry Project, which was perfect.

So here’s what I’ve learnt through this six-month stint.

  1. You can only educate the open-minded.

Recovering persons who are returning to the workforce wrestle with the moral dilemmas of disclosure. They also risk facing possible social judgement in close quarters on a daily basis, while acclimatising to the new environment and routine.

It is a great gift to have bosses who understand these things. I really appreciated the ones who showed genuine concern, and who asked me directly about my condition (instead of speculating), what precipitates it, and its limitations. At the same time, my bosses did not lose sight of my potential and capabilities, and kept encouraging me to focus on my long-term goals.

Stigma still exists in the workplace, but only amongst the ignorant and insecure/paranoid.

  1. There is greater pressure to conform and perform.

Most people wouldn’t worry about going on MC for the flu or a migraine. But for recovering persons, we excessively think about what others might say behind our backs, and whether we would be looked at differently when we return.

It is hard for anyone to flourish under the scrutiny of cynical minds that prioritise their own welfare over yours.

How does one perform a task well when every work interaction is laced with the implied sense that you’re unpredictable or violent or “weird”?

As someone who openly advocates for mental health, I felt I had to live up to the idea that I am now perfectly able to do all the things I used to do before I was diagnosed, just to convince my new employers that I’m now okay / trustworthy / capable. Overcompensating was counterproductive in the end.

On bad days when I can’t come in to work, I frantically hope they believe my condition is real, and that I’m doing my best even on the worst of days. This too adds to the pressure that goes beyond the jobscope.

  1. Keep communication lines open.

Mental healthcare is a complex issue. It is messy, confusing, and contradictory. There is no single narrative that can neatly explain it all.

The way I see it, mental illness exists on a spectrum—different people experience it differently. The same goes for recovery and work reintegration.

Some need time to adapt to work, starting out with a few hours a week, gradually progressing to full-time hours. Others can hit the road running despite a long hiatus. Some prefer more autonomy in their work, whilst others need some hand holding at the start. Some feel included only if they are immersed in activities like team lunches and after work drinks, whereas others, a warm “hello” during tea break suffices.

Working with recovering persons, because of the varied nature of mental health conditions, is unchartered territory. So it only makes sense if both employer/manager and employee/staff are able to have open, honest two-way discussions about KPIs, workload, tasks, reporting lines, work hours and so on. These things need not be set in stone either and can be revisited after an agreed period, like a check-in.

Make plans with us, not around us. Let us explore possibilities together.

  1. Advocates need advocates too.

Sometimes us advocates need people standing up for us too! A kind word, a sweet gesture. These things are like a drop of dew in the desert for us who have dedicated our lived experiences to mental health education.

I recall a time when I had lunch with some teammates who told me I was doing a great job. It was a passing remark but it motivated me to show up to work the next day, and the next. I felt more included and accepted. It boosted my morale and productivity. It is healing relationships like these that empower recovering persons to thrive in the workforce.

I was very disappointed with myself when my contract wasn’t renewed, and I couldn’t continue work yet again. I was just emotionally fatigued from the caregiving back home. From time to time, my inner critic yells: “I’m not good enough. I’ve failed to recover. I will never reach my goals.”

But after these few months of rest, I feel more gratitude than shame. Gratitude for the compassion that my bosses and teammates extended to me. Gratitude for the potential to exceed my limitations. Gratitude that recovery is a process—that my journey does not have to end here.

2 thoughts on “Returning to work when you have a mental health condition

  • October 11, 2017 at 10:11 PM
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    Thanks for sharing this. You are so brave to go back to work. It is such a struggle.

  • October 17, 2017 at 6:42 PM
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    Thank you Sarah 🙂 It is still a struggle. But that’s how we get stronger, step by step. 🙂

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