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  • Writer's picturemahlia-amatina

Managing depression in the workplace - 2

The first part of this blog focuses on what depression is: how autistic people are more at risk from experiencing mental illness in their lifetimes, and what to do while going through depression at work. It considers how depression is different for everyone and that sometimes you need to have a break and be signed off from work, and other life duties, where possible.

In this second part, I describe what I do to look after myself when signed off*, and how I manage returning to work.

Firstly, I want to express how there really shouldn’t be any shame associated in being signed off work.

It’s all too easy to be hard on yourself for feeling that you are not managing to cope and that you perhaps could, or should be. But I want to remind you of what you are experiencing, which is a very serious illness, that is deserved of the same time off, treatment and respect that a physical illness attains in status. I know we’re not there yet as a society, and I know you may not have received flowers, chocolate and cards from friends and colleagues, but I can assure you that there is no shame in your situation. You likely have little energy and may feel like you’re on this backward treadmill, trying desperately to move forwards, up a mountain, which has no summit; just continuous corners, inclines, bursts of clouds - and then more trips and dips.

Please bear in mind your context at all times. And also remember that this too will all end by the way; I promise you that.

Also, please don’t feel guilty for leaving work colleagues in the lurch – organisations are setup to expect people to be off, and if they haven’t done a good job of this, then this simply isn’t, and can’t be, your concern right now. You are your number one priority right now. And you want to find that switch, that lightbulb, and slowly let that current and light flow back within you again.

So where do you start with being signed off work? I would start with establishing a routine. And I know; our entire structure and way of being each day has just been removed, and that’s a huge deal in itself. But you don’t need anything complex in routine while off work. Start small. Rest. Flick through a book or magazine. Have a film on, even if you’re not following it. I’m a big fan of reading children’s books and having Disney Plus on as a soundscape for my time off. It gives me structure between mealtimes (very important), and provides me this feeling of child-likeness and safety, which incidentally is all I need in this time. You may be on medications, and if you’re anything like me, you need time for your body to adjust to the profound side effects. And this all takes time but allow this; your body is healing all the while.

Don’t do any work. Don’t even be tempted. But do stay in touch with your line manager and any colleagues you are friendly with.

With a portfolio career, I actually have three employers to stay in contact with, and each are distinct and require different updates, through varied mediums. It’s worth putting some parameters around this so you are clear on what is required from them, and do ask at the outset what they prefer, and highlight what works for you also. For some, a WhatsApp each fortnight regarding your wellbeing may be sufficient, while others may want a phone call or email. Don’t forget to send in your doctor’s sick note, which you can obtain either online or through your GP directly*. Naturally this means that you do need to be seeing your GP to obtain these. So please do keep to these appointments, as well as with any other health professionals, like a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist, that you may be engaging with at this point.

Over time, as you perhaps start to have more energy, you can adapt your routine to incrementally entail more, and this may include going for a walk, starting to engage with any hobbies or interests you have, and even reaching out to friends and family that bit more and perhaps meeting up with them. I don’t want to be too prescriptive in what you’re able to do or not do, as this really is individual, and as I’ve always emphasised: depression manifests differently in each of us, with symptoms being wide-ranging. You will know where you’re at with each stage, and note that this can go back as well as forwards.

Don’t expect a linear progression and remain open to your route to recovery.

I appreciate this is hard when trying to establish a routine, but maybe come up with different alternatives of activities, so you have a list to look over, if you need options with where you’re at and feeling each day.

When you start to feel even better, and only you will know when this is, plan in a visit with work. Maybe this is just a coffee with your manager, or a brief meeting. Perhaps you go in for a little longer. Each workplace is different in its etiquette of meeting and communicating, but please do what feels enough for you – don’t feel that you need to stretch yourself if you’re low on energy, for we already struggle while socialising, so just mention this and perhaps do a couple of small meetups instead of one major one. You can always have a video meeting too, if your workplace is farther afield. The key in all of this is simply to connect. You’re likely to be asked how you’ve been; your general wellbeing, so perhaps have a response ready for this, and other similar questions around your health.

Don’t feel the pressure to get back to work as soon as possible. Do not do this. I know in the past I have been guilty of this, but I simply wasn’t ready.

There’s never a rush, and a nice way to remember this is to zoom out on your life, and see how this is simply a small, minute, tiny even, part of your life. By having that extra week, month, or longer off – this is all so insignificant in the grand scheme of your entire life. So please remember this.

If your employer is pressurising you to return to work, push back through reminding them of your rights. You are protected under the Equality Act 2010, and as long as you have your GP’s note signing you off sick, there should be no legal threat or risk to your job during this time off. In some cases, you may need an advocate, trade union, or another colleague to reiterate this, but I just want to assure you that this time off is your legal right. I’m not saying you’ll be paid for all time off work, that’s different, as each workplace has its own sickness policy. However, in terms of being able to have time off, this is your right.

When you do feel well enough to return, it’s worth getting your GP to recommend a phased return to work and to explicitly have this written on your return to work note. This might mean going back to work for half the time, and gradually building this up over time, whether over a series of weeks or months – whatever you feel would work best for you, worked out in collaboration with your employer. Some larger organisations will have Human Resources, Wellness or Occupational Health departments which will manage an employee's return to work after extended sick leave.

Bear in mind that things may have changed, and to be kind to yourself and to take things super slow as you return and adjust.

It will take time and is a major change, and you need to bear this in mind and keep your health as a high priority in all of this. I wish you all the very best as you return to work and adjust to what I hope will be a healthy and supportive return, to a satisfying and fulfilling job.

* Look here for more information about taking ‘sick leave’, getting a ‘Fit Note’, and the rules that apply for when you are off work with illness for a period longer than 7 days.

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