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Returning to Work After a Period of Mental Ill Health

March 29, 2016

According to the Office of Statistics common mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and stress related illness have become some of the top causes of long term sickness.  
 The term 'stress related illness' is often used to describe issues such as burnout, exhaustion, depression and anxiety.  Taking time out from work can provide some respite but this can then lead to anxieties around returning to work. Below are some suggestions on managing the return to work after a spell of mental ill health, such as a stress related illness.  

Phased return
This is a common strategy offered by many employers and it offers the employee a chance to return to their normal working patterns in as part of a gradual and staged process.  Policies vary in terms of the length of time a person can take to return to their normal working hours so check with your manager or Human Resources Department. Not all smaller organisations and businesses have the facility to offer this kind of policy but,  even if there isn't a policy in place, an agreement may be made to temporarily reduce the persons hours of work. Alternatively there maybe other options such as using holiday leave or time accrued through a time off in lieu (TOIL) policy to shorten working days for an initial period.  Some organisations also offer flexible working hours so, if mornings are difficult the working day could be shifted giving a slightly later start time.  

Getting Support and Advice
For independent advice and guidance with regards to returning to work you may also find it helpful to speak with your trade union (if you are a member), your local Citizens Advice Bureau or ACAS.  The Health and Safety Executive also offers information and guidance on stress management via their website.

Other organisations can offer assistance and advice when returning to work after a mental health issue.  Many local branches of Mind have Employment Advisers.  Also the organisation, Access to Work, offers support to people who are returning to work after a mental health issue.  The Shaw Trust can also support to people with disabilities and this can include managing this disability in the workplace.

Many organisations, especially those working with the public, offer some form of supervision.  These are regular one to one meetings between a staff member and a line manager and they provide a space to discuss work related issues, access support and feedback and identify training needs.  If your organisation provides this then you may wish to speak with your supervisor about increasing the frequency of these sessions in the short term to support you through the process of returning to work.  Some organisation also give employees access to counselling service and this may also be something to consider.

Lunch breaks 
It is not always easy to leave your desk or workspace but taking time out to eat lunch and get some fresh air will really help you to manage your stress levels.  Taking time to eat lunch will also help you to keep your energy levels up.  Even if you appetite isn't good it's important to eat as it helps to regulate your blood sugar levels.  If you blood sugar levels become low this can lead to more anxiety and stress.

If you can, aim to go out and eat your lunch somewhere different to your place of work.  If you have a park or green space nearby and the weather is good then this can provide a relaxing environment.  A break will also take you away from the workplace noises such as ringing phones, computers, photocopiers, customers/clients and colleagues discussing work. Another alternative is to visit a local cafe or coffee shop.  If you are going to a coffee shop or cafe for lunch try to avoid the busiest periods between 12pm - 1pm as it may be difficult to find a seat and the environment could be noisy. If you can't leave your workplace you could try relocating to quieter area and bring a book or magazine to read.  

Managing post, messages and emails
Post and emails may have built up while you were away so, if possible, find a quiet space with less interruptions and work though post and messages.  Initially filter out junk mail and items that only require filing.  Once you have done this you can sort through what is left and create a to-do list.  Try to keep this list in a note book or diary rather than a scrap or paper or post-its as this makes it easier to keep track off.  You could also use an app on your phone or computer such as Trello, Epic Win (for Apple devices) or Remember the Milk.

As you are making your to-do list decide if action is needed today, this week or this month.  Also see what tasks can be grouped together or relate to a similar goal and what can be delegated or shared with a colleague.  Some items may require further information or explanation so you may need to speak with colleagues before deciding on a course of action. 

Break tasks up so you are not doing all of the challenging jobs at once.  Try to work in short bursts of 20 minutes followed by a minute or twos break.  After an hour take a longer break and get a drink.  This will help you remain focused and productive and reduce the chances of feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

Managing questions about sickness leave
It is likely that you will be asked questions by colleagues, customers/clients and business associates that relate to your health. You will need to share some information about the cause of your absence with managers and HR departments but beyond this you are free to chose how much you share.

You are under no obligation to share personal details with others beyond those mentioned so it is perfectly okay to give general information and steer away from specific details of your health.  For instance someone may ask questions about why you were off work or how you are feeling now.  Often people are not intentionally prying or trying to make you uncomfortable, they are usually showing a friendly interest and concern or making chitchat. They may also be acknowledging that you have been away from work and that it is good to see you back.

If asked about a question about your health it's okay to give a general response about your health and wellbeing. You don't need to be specific and if they ask for more information it's okay to politely decline to answer.  All you need to say is that it is a private or personal matter. End by thanking them for being concerned and bring the topic back to the present.  You could ask them about a work project or an upcoming event.

Learning relaxation and anxiety management techniques
There is a wide variety of techniques available to help manage stress levels and help us to relax.  Some examples include guided mindfulness meditations, like the ones found on the Free Mindfulness website, deep breathing exercises, yoga, journalling, spending time with a pet and colouring in patterns and pictures such as those found in adult colouring books. Many of these, such as breathing exercises, can be used in the workplace to provide a moments respite when stressed or used before and after work to help unwind and relax.  

A Beginners Guide to Social Media

February 23, 2016
Social media has become an extremely popular way to keep in touch with friends, family and other contacts. It also provides a potential space for making new contacts and friends from around the world. There are lots of options which are targeted at different markets and work in slightly different ways. Rather than try to cover every option out there I have stuck to the three most popular.


Facebook is one of the oldest of the social media platforms and it is the most popular worldwide b...

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Decluttering Tips: Items That You Can Recycle

January 25, 2016

Embarking on a task like decluttering can be an emotional experience.  We can form attachments to objects, sometimes long after they are useful to us, so letting them go can feel hard.  Often knowing that the items are going to a new home or will be put to a new use can make this process easier to manage. Below are some ideas and suggestions of ways of disposing of some hoarded or unwanted items.

Books can be easy items to rehome, especially if they are in a good condition.  In this insta...

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A Quick Guide to Developing New Healthy Habits

January 12, 2016
The New Year can be a time for revisiting goals and setting new ones for the coming year.  Below are seven tips to help you to stay on track and ensure that your new habits become part of your regular routine.

1. Be smart
By smart, I mean, set SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely.  For more information on this see my earlier blog post on goal setting.  

2. Action planning
If you imagine your goal as being the 'what' you'd like to achieve then your action pla...

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Tips to Help You Manage Anxiety when Travelling to New Places

January 7, 2016

Travelling to a new location can be daunting, especially if you experience anxiety. Sometimes, however, it is unavoidable. You may need to travel somewhere new to attend a health appointment, visit family or a friend, attend a meeting or interview or start a new job or study.  Below are some steps you can take to manage the feelings of anxiety you may experience in this new situation.

Plan journey
If you are travelling via public transport you can use websites such as Travelline or National Rai...
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Activities You Can Do on Christmas Day

December 22, 2015
Christmas Day is often thought of as a time when people spend time with family or loved ones, but for some this is not possible.  This could be due to family circumstances, ill health, finances or personal choice.  Whatever the reason, below are some suggestions of activities you can do over the Christmas period that can be done alone or with company and don't require extra cash.

1. Visit local parks and nature reserves
Getting out off the house and filling your lungs with some fresh air can be...

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Christmas Shopping Tips if you Suffer with Anxiety

December 1, 2015
Christmas shopping can be stressful at the best of times, but if you suffer with anxiety it can be especially tough.  Below are some tips to help you manage your anxiety levels while you do your shopping.

Plan Ahead
Planning ahead will help you to stay focused and enable you to work out a strategy for how to tackle your shopping.  Make a list of the items you want to purchase and think about where you could get these items from.  You can then make yourself a list per shop and take one shop at a...

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Tips to Help You Stay Within Your Christmas Budget

November 24, 2015
Christmas time can be a stressful time of year, especially if you are on a tight budget.  Below are some tips on how you can keep to a budget this Christmas.

Planning has an important role when you are shopping on a budget.  Start by making a list of everyone you are planning to buy a present for and set a budget for each person.  Decide what you would like to buy and how much you are willing to spend and then target your shopping trips to buying just these items.  Doing Christmas shop...

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World Mental Health Day 2015: Dignity and Mental Health

October 9, 2015
The 10th of October is World Mental Health Day and theme for this years events is dignity.  Dignity is such an important topic within mental health and it is a really positive step that mental health organisations are choosing to focus on this aspect of mental health this year. Below are a few of the thoughts I have had around the subject of dignity and supporting someone with a mental health issue.

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Seven Tips to Help You Take Better Care of Your Hands and Feet

September 29, 2015
Hands and feet take a fair bit of punishment over the course of our lifetime.  Our hands are often exposed to the most and can get sore and cracked during the colder weather, we use them for washing and cleaning tasks around the home, DIY tasks and they often become the victim of picking or biting during times of stress.  Feet experience a similar level of stress and often spend much of their time in socks and shoes, being walked upon, they often get knocked and banged and, like the hands, ar...

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About Me

Katherine Clark I am experienced mental health worker with 15 years experience working with young people and adults with enduring mental health needs. I have set up this blog to share some of the tips and skills I have learnt along the way. If you have any suggestions or particular questions you would like me to answer feel free to email me at [email protected]

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