Mental health at work – how to get back to work after taking time off

This article was written by Rebecca Peters and Dr. Joanna Yarker.

In this article, we provide a brief introduction to mental health at work, what to do to help protect and manage your mental health and introduce a new, free resource that can help you get back to work after stress, anxiety or depression.

Did you know…
• that stress, anxiety or depression affects 1 in 6 of us?
• it is currently the most frequent cause of absence from work, with 1 in 3 fit notes citing mental health?
• for many, work is the biggest cause of stress in people’s lives?

Looking after your mental health at work
Many of us are aware that mental ill-health is on the rise across the UK and this has an effect on our mental health at work. For most people, work is very important – not only for financial reasons but also for our identity and our health. Sometimes, work itself can also cause stress- when our work is not properly designed or managed, or we are under pressure for too long. The chances are if something is impacting your health, it is probably affecting others too.

Talking about stress or mental health in the workplace can be hard – employees often fear that they might be seen as weak or incompetent and labelled as being unable to continue doing their job, but this simply isn’t the case. Research shows that it is often best to talk, and talk early, so that you can put in place strategies to help you get better. Although disclosing a mental health condition can be a big hurdle, there are lots of benefits for doing so, for example, your employer is likely to be more understanding and accommodating once they know the reason for your absence and are in a better position to support you on your return. You may also find it helpful to listen to others talking about their mental health on the Time to change website (see personal stories).

What can I do to protect my mental health?
The things we can do to protect our mental health are a natural part of life and may seem common sense, but we let them slip as soon as life starts to get too busy! The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has identified 5 ways we can improve personal wellbeing. Take time to think about whether you do any of these over the course of your week:
• Connect – talk, listen, take five minutes to ask someone how they are.
• Be active – no time for the gym? Try the stairs, walk and meet, get off the tube or bus a stop earlier to cram in more activity.
• Take notice – stop looking at your phone while you are walking and look around, appreciate the surroundings, let your eyes take in the nature around you.
• Keep learning – it keeps our brains agile and engaged. Learn a new language or skill, start a new hobby.
• Give – help someone out, volunteer your time, doing something for someone else makes us feel better about ourselves.

When it all becomes too much – do you know your signs and triggers?
Everyone’s experience of mental health is slightly different. People with stress, anxiety or depression may display different signs or symptoms and some might not show any at all. But are you aware for your symptoms and triggers? It is important to have this self-awareness to help you manage your mental health and know when you may need some time to recuperate.

Some signs that you may have noticed in yourself include:
• Behavioural: struggling with workload, low levels of concentration and focus, difficulty in organising things, low productivity, negative attitude/changes in motivation.
• Physical: tiredness/having sleepless nights, increased drinking and/or smoking habits, loss of appetite, headaches
• Emotional: feeling anxious and irritable, mood changes and differences in your interaction with colleagues and friends, excessive emotion, feeling isolated/socially withdrawn.

What happens if I take time off work?
Just as you would take time off for a broken leg to recover, from time to time this is also what we need to do for our mental health to get it back on track. Often people find it difficult to tell their employer that their absence is mental health related, but those that do report find that they are able to get the help that they need. A team of researchers at Kingston University, Loughborough University and Affinity Health at Work have developed a free-to-access toolkit to help employees and employers navigate the return to work process following a mental health sickness absence. If you are currently off work and would like advice about how to get back to work, this toolkit is for you (full details below).

Here are some tips for ‘what to do’ initially if you are taking time off work:
• Tell your employer that you will be off work and if you can, give them an indication of how long you will be off for.
• Check your company’s absence policy so you know what the company need from you.
• Agree with your employer how you will keep in contact with one another during your absence. You can suggest how you want to be contacted during your sickness absence and who is your preferred contact person within the company (although this may not always be practical depending on the size of the company).
• Importantly, take steps to help yourself get better. What you need to do to restore your mental health may be unique to you, so think about what works for you and do more of it. The toolkit has lots of suggestions and practical advice to help you navigate your way back to work.

What if I feel that my manager may be contributing to my mental ill-health?
If you think your manager’s behaviour towards you is making your mental health worse, it will feel even more difficult to talk about your mental health at work. It is often the case that managers are not aware that their behaviour, or the way your work is organised is affecting you. Talk to a trusted colleague, a manager from a different team or your human resources representative. Although you may feel that you have no one to turn to at work, there are some things that you can do.

If you are currently off due to mental ill-health and are thinking about returning to work, we would really like to hear from you. If you are interested in trialing the toolkit, packed with templates, checklists and advice, please contact Rebecca on [email protected]

If you want to find out more about mental health in general: Mind, The Health and Safety Executive and Chartered Institute of Personnel Development have lots of useful guidance about what you can do to protect your mental health, and how workplaces can support employees.

Contact us to access the free, online toolkit to help you get back to work – [email protected]