Medical research and lived experience tells us that engagement in work can be a very positive and useful recovery tool for people living with Depression.
Work does not replace other therapies such as psychological or psychiatric treatment, however, it can be a positive way of being able to practice new skills that are being taught or explored in treatment.
There is a lot written about how workplaces are becoming increasingly aware of employees who are experiencing Depression in their workplaces. We now have a growing social impact from organisations such as Beyond Blue, Super Friend, ReturntoWork.net.au, all providing great resources that help employers and co-workers develop supportive workplaces for someone living with Depression.
Living with Depression does not mean someone can’t work. Often work can be a great help to stabilising symptoms and improving the heath of people living with Depression.
During my work as a Rehabilitation Counsellor, I have heard a lot of fears being expressed by people who have experienced absence from work due to Depression.
I’ve written this post in the hope that any person who is living with Depression or recovering from a depressive episode may know how they can navigate returning to work.
Fear #1: What if I can’t do my job?
After any time away from work it’s reasonable to feel like you may not know if you can do the job any more.
In addition, when you are living with symptoms of Depression you don’t quite feel the way you used to feel, and that feels “abnormal”.
For example, some people report that they find it hard to think quickly when they are living with Depression, therefore making sure that your work tasks are structured in such a way that allows you to focus on one thing at a time would be helpful.
Fear #2: What if I can’t cope and I break down?
This is where I recommend using a Flare Up management plan. My client’s find them a really useful tool to know what to do in the event that symptoms or feelings become unmanageable.
For example, if you know that news events can trigger more feelings or stronger feelings then avoid the radio or TV while at work including in the social spaces.
It’s imperative that you know exactly who you can talk to when at work if you notice that you are feeling worse. It’s often most helpful to set up the ‘how will we communicate when I’m feeling bad’ scenarios before they happen so everyone who needs to know, knows what to do.
Fear #3 I don’t want people to ask me how I am?
This is a common concern for people living with Depression. We either state the truth, I am depressed, or often we lie and say “I’m fine” which often doesn’t help.
What I’ve found to be useful is to plan with client’s how they would like to respond to this question in a way that is polite but also gives them a sense of dignity. For example – Thanks for asking, I’m doing OK today.
Or I appreciate you asking, today’s is difficult for me but I know what to do.
What I have observed in 20 years of doing this work is that most people don’t want to be rude or nosey – we just haven’t been very good at talking about mental health at all. Our lack of experience tends to make us clumsy. We aren’t very good at it in families and we aren’t very good at it in workplaces. Every time someone is courageous enough to return to work while they are recovering, they are giving us all the opportunity to learn how to get better at talking about mental health is a way that is respectful.
Fear #4. I don’t want people to know why I’ve been away from work.
Similarly, to the above fear statement, it is better to be prepared for these conversations before they occur. Remember, you are in control of what you want people to know about you and your life. There is no rule that says you must share with everyone. I personally would want to keep a lot of my illness and medical history personal and private.
Again, I have found it useful to plan with client’s how they would like to respond to questions or statements about them having been absent from work. Simple responses such as – I’ve been unwell but I’m on the mend, thanks for your concern.
We cannot control how someone will respond to us, and when we are feeling uncertain or vulnerable it is common to want to control the emotional reactions of others. However, we can’t. What we can control is how we want to be in that moment and how we want to respond.
Fear #5 What if I can’t cope at home after I’ve been at work all day?
What a great question.
Being at work should not be the sum total of all that you have in your life. It can be expected that returning to work after any time away from work will increase feelings of uncertainty or fatigue. The smart thing to do here is to make one change at a time. When you are preparing to return to work, make sure you aren’t making too many more changes that effect your energy and mood at the same time.
Learning how to integrate work back into your whole life will take some time. Often, we are all in a rush to be better now, but that’s not how recovery works. Recovery needs to be planned, thought out and prepared for. Returning to work while you are living with Depression is no different.
Summary and final thoughts
Please understand that you cannot be in a rush to get “back to the way I was” after a period of mental illness. It is important for you to stop and think about who you are now and be aware of the extra energy you may be putting into trying to keep up appearances.
One of the unique skills of a Rehabilitation Professional is our ability to apply the experience of your symptoms to your work tasks so that you can gradually increase what you are doing at work, building on your knowledge and your skills, while building your resilience to be in the workplace. This is why we don’t advocate for people to have to be 100% well before returning back to work, because on the whole people more successfully return to work when work is a part of their recovery.