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Returning to work after a period of mental ill health – ten tips to make your return to work easier

Have you been off work due to mental ill health? If so, it's natural to find the thought of returning to work daunting. You may feel like you're not ready or that you won't be able to cope. However, returning to work can be a successful and positive experience if the proper steps are taken.

What are the 10 top tips for returning safely to work after a period of poor mental health?

Set a Target Date for Your Return to Work

Setting a target date for returning to work after a period of mental ill health should be done in consultation with your GP or specialist and should take into account your recovery progress and the type of work you do.

Discuss Your Return to Work With Your Employer

Returning to work after a period of mental ill health can be difficult, but having an open and honest conversation with your employer can help make the transition smoother. It is essential to approach the conversation positively and be prepared to discuss any accommodations you may need. During the conversation, you may wish to discuss flexible hours, support from your line manager, and any concerns you have. It is up to you how much you disclose about your mental health, but providing some context for your needs may be helpful. Work with your employer to create a plan for your return, including a phased return if necessary. This involves gradually increasing the number of hours worked over a set period; however, a phased return's exact duration and details should be determined on a case-by-case basis. Finally, ensure all notes of your conversation and any agreements made are documented and signed by both parties.

Make Sure That You Have the Resources Available to Help You Return Safely

Knowing the resources available can make your return to work much more manageable. It is essential to seek support from mental health professionals, your GP and your HR Team, who can provide guidance on managing symptoms and making necessary workplace accommodations. Your employer may also have Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) or a Mental Health First Aider that can offer ongoing support and give you further confidence that you will be supported whilst at work.

Make Any Practical Adjustments Necessary to Ensure Your Safety and Success

Employers are required by law to make reasonable adjustments for workers with disabilities or long-term physical or mental conditions. This could mean giving someone with social anxiety their own desk rather than expecting them to hot desk or noise-cancelling headphones to help manage sensory overload. If you don't feel comfortable requesting any necessary adjustments, seek advice from your Union or an organisation such as ACAS.

Establish a Support Network

Identifying people who can offer emotional and practical support, such as a supportive line manager, colleagues, a mentor, Mental Health First Aider or an EAP, can be helpful, and by proactively building a network, you can create a supportive workspace that allows you to bring your best self to work. However, it's vital to mention that you don't have to share details of your mental health condition if you don't feel comfortable doing so.

Take it Slowly

Returning to work after a period of poor mental health can be overwhelming. Hence, you must take it slowly and give yourself time to adjust. Arrange regular check-ins with your line manager. If you feel overwhelmed, don't be afraid to speak up and seek professional help.

Have a System for Monitoring Your Mental Health

A system for monitoring your mental health can ensure that you stay healthy at work. Regular check-ins with a trusted manager or member of HR can help you stay on track and identify potential triggers or warning signs.

Take part in a Return To Work Meeting

As we've previously mentioned, open and honest communication is key. And once you've returned to work, this will usually start by taking part in a "Return to Work Interview/Conversation/Meeting" to discuss how you feel on your first day back, what support is available, and to reconfirm any adjustments made. It should also be an opportunity for your line manager or HR team to update you on any company news or major changes you need to know about.

Maintain a healthy work/life balance

Returning to work after mental ill health can often leave us feeling as if we have to "prove" to managers and colleagues that we're "capable" of doing our job. This can result in you starting to work additional hours, miss lunch breaks, take work home with you, and all those other unhealthy behaviours at work. So, just as if you were recovering from a physical illness, ensure you set and keep clear boundaries regarding your work/life balance.

Don't be afraid to take time off again if necessary

Remember, returning to work does not mean your mental health struggles are resolved. It is natural to encounter stressors or triggers in the workplace that may impact your well-being. However, being proactive and recognising when you need time to recharge can prevent further mental health deterioration and promote sustained recovery. 

Conclusion

Returning to work after a period of poor mental health can be a challenging and delicate process. However, with the right approach and support, it is possible to make the transition smoother and more manageable. And by following the ten tips outlined in this blog, you can set yourself up for success and prioritise your well-being as you navigate your return to the workplace.

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