Returning to work following time out for mental illness can be daunting, but by following a few simple steps you can soon get yourself back on track
Taking time off work to recover from a mental illness is more prevalent than ever, and an NHS report shows that nearly a third of fit notes are specifically issued because of psychiatric problems. This makes them the most common reason for people to take time off, with a 14% rise in fit notes relating to anxiety and stress in recent years. If, like me, you’ve been signed off for a substantial amount of time, then you’ll know how difficult it can be to get your career back on track. Whether you’re absent for two months or two years, setting realistic career goals takes time and consideration to get right. Here are some pointers on how to make the transition as painless as possible.
1. Be flexible
Setting goals is a great way to get motivated and stay on track, but don’t make your plan so rigid that there’s no room for flexibility. Getting back to work will be hard, and you might have more bad days than good in the beginning. This means that your plan will need plenty of wiggle room, in case you don’t quite meet initial deadlines. Remember, these goals are personal to you – and often self-imposed – so don’t give yourself a hard time if you don’t progress as quickly as anticipated. Slow and steady will win the race and keep your sanity intact.
2. Break it down
Having an epic goal to work towards is cool, but breaking it down into smaller, manageable chunks is better. I do this by writing a monthly checklist with a few simple goals that I can score off as the weeks go by. I make the list short, achievable, and always leave a section blank for new opportunities which might pop up, because planning for the unexpected helps me feel prepared for anything.
3. Pace yourself
You may try to up your game to make up for lost time, but resist the urge to do everything all at once. Your ultimate goal should be to find the perfect balance of excelling in your career while maintaining good mental health, not smashing your goals to your own detriment. When you do achieve each goal, don’t forget to rest, reflect, and give yourself a pat on the back before heading into your next challenge.
4. Recognise your triggers
It’s important to remember that your mental illness may mean your “best” changes when you’re not feeling well. Sometimes just getting up and going to work is a triumph, so you should learn to celebrate the small wins and avoid pushing yourself too much. Keeping a mood diary will point out patterns in your behaviours and allow you to pinpoint your triggers. For example, do you always get stressed before a big meeting? If so, try to schedule activities beforehand that make you feel good, such as a yoga class or a phone call with a supportive friend. Even little habits, such as drinking too much coffee, can lead to feelings of anxiety, so being aware of the things that affect your mood can give you tools to combat issues before they escalate.
5. Work with your employer
If you’ve been off work with a mental illness and you’re returning to the same job as before, then you’re in a good position because your employer will be fully aware of your situation. The chances are they can’t wait to have you back, and will be eager to make your return as smooth as possible. If you’re nervous, ask if you can have a phased return, with fewer hours and less responsibility, to ease you back into your normal duties.
6. Keep your doctor in the loop
Even if you’re feeling positive and productive at work, it’s a good idea to keep your doctor informed about any changes you may be experiencing. Even something as small as waking up in the night can be an indicator that you’re not coping. Attending regular check-ups is a good way to make sure that any red flags are dealt with swiftly, and keeping your doc up to date with your career goals might explain any fluctuations in mood, as well as inform decisions around any medication you take. You wouldn’t want to start weaning off your meds in the run up to an important presentation or when working towards a promotion, so keep your GP in the loop for a successful return to work.