Work can take a heavy toll on our mental well-being. Once we start to dread going to work or fall mentally ill to a point where we need a mental health leave or “stress leave”, it takes courage to return back into the workforce.
Our mental capacity is like a cup, where if too much water (stress) is poured in, it overflows. High intensities of stress can lead to depression and other mental illnesses where it makes it hard for us to keep working. Often times this leads to a much-needed stress leave where we take time off to recharge our spirits.
This post is for anyone who’s considering a return to work after a career break due to their mental health.
- The Challenges After a Stress Leave
- Tips for Smooth Work Transitions
- Take Slow Gradual Steps Back to Work
The Challenges After a Stress Leave
A common pitfall is to treat all career breaks equally. Paternity or maternity leave is very different from leaves due to mental health issues and should be treated accordingly. Research claims that long durations of stress leaves taken more than 3 times increase difficulties for a healthy return.
Let’s look at some of the challenges that come after a stress leave.
Mental Recovery Is Difficult to Measure
Mental recovery is usually assessed by a doctor, but that doctor’s assessment still relies on their personal subjective opinion in the end. Unlike physical wellness, mental well-being is difficult to measure recovery by definitive numbers.
One might seem healthy and well, yet have a high tendency to suppress depression whether conscious or unconscious. This makes assessments of a person more complicated, even for mental health professionals.
Returning to work before full recovery should be avoided. If a person ends up acting okay when they’re not, it risks more harm.
Mental Health Is a Constant Journey
Full recovery from depression and other serious mental illnesses is known to be difficult. While things could seem all better, oftentimes it can just be a state of temporary remission. It’s not rare for an incident or flashback to trigger symptoms to re-emerge.
For example, if constant harassment from a boss leads to enough mental health issues for a person to take a break from work, this person can struggle or be triggered easily through their relationships with future bosses when they return to work again.
We should understand that mental health recovery can be a long journey that requires patience and coping skills.
Rushing Back to Work After Stress Leave
People who are vulnerable to mental health pitfalls can be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) or have the tendency to prioritize others before themselves. This tendency makes them worry about their job or co-workers before themselves and pushes them back to work earlier to prioritize others. This results in an unsuccessful return as the person never took the time to adequately recover.
Any plans of returning to work should be given generous time. Most times, it’s more time than we ‘think’ we need.
Career Blanks Can Affect Our Self-Esteem
A career blank can affect our self-esteem and create worries about our future job prospects. For many, it can be a challenge to see their break in a positive light when they are ready to return to work. People who already struggle with mental health issues tend to fall into the belief that they had to “downgrade” or that they are “unwanted.”
Tips for Smooth Work Transitions
As mentioned above, there are many challenges in returning to work after extended mental health leave. It’s more unlikely we have everything perfectly figured out before going back to work, so the focus should be on mitigating these challenges.
Here are some tips on how to make a smooth transition back to work:
Create Relationships Outside of Work
If the work environment is a big factor for mental stress, create relationships outside of work. Joining communities outside of work can be a great outlet when you’re feeling down. The more we have family, friends, and romantic partners that support us, the more we can share our feelings and focus on other fun activities. An escape community from ‘work thoughts’ is always great to have and will help mental recovery.
Don’t Rush to Get Back to Work
As mentioned above, rushing back to work is not a good idea, as it can lead to needing a break again soon. It’s normal to want to go back to work due to financial concerns, societal pressure to work, or from worries of leaving work for long durations.
It’s hard to expect a full recovery of our mental health right away. Even if when you feel ready, stop for a minute and ask for a second opinion. Take slow steps to assure a healthy return to work.
Create Distance From Triggers
Every person has a different reason why they might have needed a stress leave. It can be anything from work relationships, unfit job positions, to harsh working environments, etc. If you understand the initial cause, try to create a distance from your possible triggers. Psychological triggers can be avoided if we set proper boundaries from the potential cause.
Take Slow Gradual Steps Back to Work
In our stressful modern society, it’s not uncommon to need a break from work due to mental health issues. If you’ve already taken a career break and feel ready to go back to work, try to keep these challenges and tips in mind as you make decisions moving forward.
After a long career break, the best way to get back into the groove of work is through slow and gradual steps.
References：Kashiwagi, Y., Taguchi, F., Monou, H., Ebana, S., & Ashihara, M. (2006). INVESTIGATIVE RESEARCH ON SUPPORT FOR RETURNING TO THE WORKPLACE FOR PERSONS WITH IMPAIRED MENTAL HEALTH—QUESTIONNAIRE SURVEY OF RELATED PERSONS WITHIN AND OUTSIDE THE WORKPLACE. Japanese Journal of Occupational Medicine and Traumatology, 54(3), 113–118. http://www.jsomt.jp/journal/pdf/054030113.pdf
Kashiwagi, Y. (2006). THE ISSUES OF RETURNING TO THE WORKPLACE FOR PERSONS WITH IMPAIRED MENTAL HEALTH. Japanese Journal of Occupational Medicine and Traumatology, 54(2), 49–53. http://www.jsomt.jp/journal/pdf/054020049.pdf