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7 Crucial Tips for Getting Back to Work After a Mental Health Crisis

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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. I kept thinking about how frustrated and resentful my colleagues must have felt during my absence.

Surprisingly, my first day back at work went smoothly. I received a warm welcome and understanding instead of hatred. My company also 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 65 percent of employers have stated that a mental illness diagnosis is a major factor in considering a new worker. Although many companies have adopted new models and resources for individuals who suffer from mental illness, many people still suffer from discrimination and stigma. Today, I’d like to share what worked for me.

1. Meet with your supervisor and human resources representative to go over your needs.

These may include workplace accomodations like different hours or clearer guidlelines for your tasks. Make sure to discuss how information about your absence will be shared with coworkers.

2. Make sure to check in with your supervisor or HR representative once in a while to make sure your needs are being met.

3. Try to create a thriving environment in your workplace.

This can include a structured schedule, positive reinforcement, peer support and help from leadership. It’s important to have a positive environment for all workers, especially those living with mental illness.

4. Having your psychologist in communication with your employers can be a huge help.

Many companies have adopted guidelines for assisting employees living with mental illness, but not all employers are that accommodating.

5. Be your own advocate.

A support system and accommodating employers are very important, but no one knows your needs like you.

6. Always report discrimination or harassment to your human resources department.

Unfortunately, any workplace may have employees (or employers) who are not tolerant towards people living with mental illness. This is not your fault. While trying to deal with these situations directly can seem like the quickest way to end it, direct confrontations can lead to serious complications. It’s best to report any discriminatory incidents to HR.

7. Know what online resources are available to help.

Getting back into a comfortable level of work can be a difficult adjustment. There are tools online that can help, like a Wellness Recovery Action Plan, which gives you a reasonable, structured plan for continuing your work after time off for mental health reasons.

I spoke to my friend’s therapist Dr. Debra Davis-Johnson, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, about these kinds of situations and how employers might better accommodate workers living with mental illness. She offers this counsel on managing employees with bipolar disorder:

  • 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:

Mental Health Training

EEOC Sues King Soopers for Discriminating Against Employee with Bipolar Disorder

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

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Originally published: April 19, 2016
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