By Stephanie Ortez and Dori Owen.
Returning to work after a mental health episode can be daunting. In 2014, I checked myself into a psychiatric ward for one week. Afterward, I spent another two weeks in the outpatient program. What I remember most about that episode was my constant anxiety over the thought of returning to my workplace. For some, this was more terrifying than being hospitalized.
Although my employers couldn’t fire me, the thought of seeing them and my co-workers again triggered my anxiety. I couldn’t sleep for days, thinking about how frustrated and resentful my colleagues must have felt during my absence. Surprisingly, my first day at work went smoothly. The warm, welcome and level of understanding was such, that I applied myself to help in any way I could, and become very fond of my co-workers. My company accommodated my needs accordingly, and to this day, I have never experienced any type of criticism or discrimination.
Unfortunately, things do not work out this way for many people. About 50% of people who take time away from work to get better due to mental illness, won’t be able to get their jobs back. Although many companies have adopted new models and resources for individuals who suffer from mental illness, many individuals still suffer from discrimination and stigma. Today, I’d like to share what worked for me.
Upon returning to work, the first thing you should do is meet with your supervisor and human resources representative to go over your needs, and check on these every once in a while for effectiveness. It is imperative that you discuss how this information should be shared with your co-workers, especially with the person who took over your job while you were away. It is also important to let your supervisor know about upcoming doctor appointments and any re-training you feel you might need.
You may require workplace accommodations, such as different work hours, and clear guidelines about new tasks with simple, straightforward instructions to help your memory and concentration.
Perceived loss of support
Reaction to negatively expressed criticism
Help and support from leadership
While many companies have incorporated these requirements, it is important to speak up and advocate for yourself. The last week of my outpatient therapy was dreadful. Work related fear and stress played over and over in my head. Thankfully, one of the benefits of outpatient therapy was having my mental health psychologist in constant communication with my employers to make my return upon work smooth.
Addressing frustrated co-workers is one of the biggest potential triggers when returning to the workplace. You may bring mental health awareness, but it’s always better to let your supervisor handle this. If you feel discriminated, you should immediately report it to human resources. Remember, your fellow colleagues and employers have a duty to remain professional during and after your transition. The key is to know all the resources available.
Mental Illness does not mean you have a lower level of responsibility. Your goal should be to perform your job more effectively and ease also any stress you feel. Wellness action plans are a great way to start. Some work adjustments may include, working from home, allowing yourself a safe environment, or relocating your work desk; if physically distancing isn’t an option, try to improve your working environment in other ways. I have natural plants around my cubicle and little post-its featuring positive reinforcement quotes and techniques to help me when anxiety kicks in. I listen to atmospheric music using my headphones, and also, I remind myself to take a quick 15-minute break to walk outside, do breathing exercises, and relieve stress.
Dr. Debra Davis-Johnson, Ph.D., licensed psychologist, offers this counsel on managing the bipolar employee:
- Establish mutually acceptable ground rules to avoid any misunderstandings between the employee and employer. Allow for reasonable schedule accommodations, e.g., if it is a “bad” day–allow the employee to go home. The employee must be held accountable for missed time.
- Encourage an atmosphere of trust and open communication; try to accommodate and be understanding.
- The employee must provide medical certification to the employer, and provide verification of treatment via medication, counseling, and therapy.
- If the employee’s moods interfere with work performance, employer should set standards and expectations of the employee that can be quantitatively and qualitatively measured.
- Ensure that both you and the employee are working together with your human resources department.
Finally, it is very important to know our rights and act upon them. Returning to work should be an opportunity to display one’s abilities and strengths and to fight against stigma. Do you need help returning to work but don’t know where to start? Here are some resources:
Time to Change (UK): http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/node/99004
Mental Health Training: https://www.rethink.org/services-groups/mental-health-training
Psych Central: http://psychcentral.com/library/id282.html
Society For Human Resource Management: https://www.shrm.org/publications/hrmagazine/editorialcontent/2014/1014/pages/1014-mental-health.aspx
EEOC Sues King Soopers for Discriminating Against Employee with Bipolar Disorder: http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-18-12a.cfm
National Alliance on Mental Illness:
Understanding Employees with Bipolar Disorder:
How to Deal With an Employee With Bipolar Disorder:
What to Expect from an Employee with Bipolar:
The Next Big Thing: Bipolar Employees and the ADA:
FAQs From Employers: