This piece was written by freelancer Rachel Michaella Finn 

Going through a mental health problem can be incredibly tough, but if the recent media focus on reducing mental health stigma over the past few years has taught us anything, it’s that you’re most definitely not alone. Mental Health charity Mind stated that 1 in 4 of us will face a mental health issue in any given year and that almost half (48%) of public sector workers who had experienced mental ill health at their current organisation have taken time off because of their mental health. However, last year, the BBC reported that although Britons took 137 million sick days in 2016 with 5.8 million of them being for a mental health issue, asking for time-out because of mental health issues is still viewed as taboo by many employers.

Remember that if you do find yourself taking a step back from work for a while to focus on your mental health, it isn’t a sign of weakness. Mental health issues are often over-looked as they can’t be ‘seen’ in the same way as physical ailments, but good health is comprised of both. And for optimum performance at work (as well as a happy life),  it’s important to know when to take time out to make  full psychological recovery so you can return to work more focused, energised and able to enjoy your job again. Here’s our guide for making your move back to the workplace as smooth as possible after taking time off for your mental health.

Being in the office space

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This is perhaps the trickiest bit. Going back into a work environment after time spent away from it can seem pretty daunting, but there are some things you can do to help. Matt, 24, who recently took a week off his job in administration due to mental health issues, advises anyone in a similar position to him to “just take things slow and be organised.” He also stressed that it’s often the simple things that can help you adjust to being back at work and focus on what needs to be done. “One thing that helped was writing everything down and having a tick list to know when I had completed everything I needed to do,” he says.

Other simple things could include:

  • trying to take the whole of your lunch break outside the office rather than eating something at your desk,
  • scheduling in a couple of quick five minute breaks in the day to get some fresh air
  • taking a couple of deep breaths before answering the phone.
  • plan 3-5 small things you could do to lessen stress during those first few weeks back that work for you, and it’ll make everything that little bit less scary.

Consider your options

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Remember that returning to work (even part-time or on a short-term basis) is an extremely positive step after being off sick for mental health issues, so pat yourself on the (literal or proverbial) back. Good job. Work can be stressful, but it also provides financial stability, a routine, projects to focus your energy on, and social interactions with others, all of which can contribute to better mental health. However it’s totally fine if you don’t want to go straight back into a full-time role. Part-time work or volunteering is a great way to keep active, add to your CV and make new personal and professional connections in the process. A combination of part-time work and freelancing to build up your work portfolio, for example, might be better than leaping back into a full-time job, as well as offering you more flexibility with working hours that might help you manage your mental health in recovery. If you’re interested in volunteering, a good place to check out is the National Council of Volunteering Organisations and, of course, Go Think Big offer a variety of work experience opportunities too!

Know your employment rights

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It’s totally normal to feel a little concerned about having to explain your reasons for time off to a potential employer due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. But when searching for a new job, you don’t actually have to give much detail about why you spent time away. In fact, the Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for employers to ask health or health-related questions before making a conditional offer of employment. It’s also illegal to discriminate against any kind of disability, including mental health issues. As Mind notes; “generally speaking, employers can’t ask you questions about your mental health before a job offer is made”. And once a job offer is made, only then can a prospective employer quiz you about your health. A good guide to read about your rights, mental health and the workplace is available on the their website.

Look into government help

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Depending on your circumstances, you might also be eligible for government help in the form of benefits or grants to help ease the transition back into the workplace after taking time off for mental heath issues. Make sure to check the government website here to check if you’re eligible.

Be upfront about your needs with your employer

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It’s a good idea to organise a meeting with HR once you return to work so you can discuss your support options . The best thing to do here is be honest about how your mental health might affect your work. This is because, according to a government website, employers must make “reasonable adjustments” to make sure those with health conditions, including mental health conditions, aren’t disadvantaged at work. So that could include “allowing someone with social anxiety disorder to have their own desk instead of hot-desking”, for example, or offering flexible working hours or the option to work from home some days. Also, remember that your employer should allow you to take reasonable amounts of time off to attend medical appointments, in the same way they would with physical illnesses or disabilities.

Keep up your support network

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Though you’re well enough to return to work, it’s important to keep up any appointments you still have ongoing, such as meetings with your GP, psychiatrist or therapist to help you through the transition and ensure you work towards making a full recovery. It’s also important to let your work know about these appointments as far in advance as possible, so you can plan your work accordingly and keep everyone up to date. Keeping in touch with family and friends is also an important thing to do, especially if you’re moving away for a job. The Mental Health Foundation advises: “If you don’t feel able to talk about feelings at work, make sure there’s someone you can discuss work pressures with – partners, friends and family can all be a sounding board.” Identify at least one person you can contact to discuss any work issues with before you start the job to keep a weight off your mind when you’re adjusting in the first few days and weeks of being back at work.

Talk about it (if you want)

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You might be unsure whether it is appropriate to bring mental health up in the workplace, but with mental health issues being relatively common, it’s unlikely you’ll be the only one in the office who’s ever experienced them anyway. Disclosing your mental health issues to colleagues you trust, at a time and in a way that feels right for you, can actually be a good step to take in order to lessen stigma and make mental health in the workplace a more accessible topic for everyone. The Mental Health Foundation suggests that by being “open about how you feel at work, especially if you are a leader, it might encourage others to do the same.” But remember  – it’s totally up to you.

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