Overcoming barriers to returning to work after a mental-health leave
Career development practitioners can work alongside health professionals to help clients consider all possible return-to-work options during their recovery
By Dr Marie-Helene Pelletier
The facts are clear: mental-health issues represent on average more than 30% of long-term disability (LTD) claims (Mental Health Commission of Canada), with half of those claims for depression (Sun Life Financial). It is no surprise that career development and health professionals are bound to be working at some point with individuals off work due to a mental-health issue.
Whether I’m speaking with professionals who support people on leave, or individuals off work because of a mental-health issue, three barriers to a return to work consistently emerge. Here’s a quick overview of each – and how they can be overcome.
Barrier #1 – I can’t picture myself going back to work at all
I hear this in my office regularly – and it’s not surprising, given how the cloud of depression can influence our thoughts. My answer is a simple one: advise your client to focus first on their return to good mental health. Your client’s health professional will have their return to work in mind from the beginning and will help them move in that direction. One of an individual’s key accountabilities while on leave is to seek treatment and take an active role in it. So, if they’re seeing a psychologist, a physician and accessing other resources as needed, they’re on the right track. The details of their return to work will emerge as recovery gets closer.
Barrier #2 – I’m not sure I can return to optimum health
Leave optimum health aside and focus on a return to simple, everyday functioning where a return to the workplace in some capacity is possible. Insurance carriers work hard with health professionals to keep individuals focused on a return to work (as opposed to working on everything that could be optimized). Small steps can eventually lead to big gains and a return to pre-disability performance.
Barrier #3 – I’m not sure I can handle my old job
The truth is that there are many paths available to individuals, and only one of them is a return to their full-time job, typically with a gradual return schedule. An individual may be cleared to return to work by their physician and psychologist, they let the employer know and a gradual return to work is agreed upon. The individual starts work two weeks later and gradually assumes more responsibility, with the individual touching base with their psychologist a few times.
There are many other scenarios, including the employee assuming another job with the employer, or leaving the employer entirely for another organization. The time off to recover is also a time off to reflect – and it’s a tremendous opportunity for individuals to think about their work role and where they believe they can excel and want to be.
As professionals, part of what we do is support an individual in their return to good health and encourage them to consider all possible paths as they re-enter the workforce.
Dr Marie-Helene Pelletier is a bilingual practicing psychologist and experienced senior leader with the rare combination of PhD and MBA. She helps individuals and businesses increase health and performance via her individual therapy practice and workplace mental health consulting and as a resilience keynote speaker. Connect with Dr Pelletier on drmhpelletier.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.