Navigating having a mental health condition while returning to work can be a challenging endeavor. Being a Vocational Specialist and having worked with a number of people on returning to work, and also being someone who has lived experience with psychosis and returning to work a few times myself, there are a few key elements and recommendations we generally provide people within our program and there are a few things I have learned from my own lived experience that have been helpful to others.
If you are searching for a new job, one of the first actions is having your resume reviewed. Many people are reluctant to have us review their resumes, but over time they eventually send them, and there are a number of revisions and corrections we are able to provide to help bolster clients’ stature within their job search. Your resume is the only window employers have into knowing who you are which is why it’s a document to hold with high regard. Having reviewed many resumes we have picked up on may ways to help improve resumes that the average person might not be aware of.
I know in the beginning I was reluctant to accept help getting a job, citing that I wanted to be on equal footing with everyone else. I had my own self-stigma towards having a mental health condition and I was trying to prove that I could get a job the same way anyone else could. However, if you signed on with an employment agency or a headhunter, they would provide all these same services. We also provide help with interviewing practice, networking, and other job related tasks such as career counseling. A common theme when doing this work is that people weren’t aware of how much they could improve at these skills and they are surprised at how helpful it can be to work with vocational specialists.
Another common issue that has arisen for myself and for others is how to notify work that you need time off due to a mental health condition. Although it’s nice to think we live in a progressive world that doesn’t have stigma, this has not been my experience on a daily basis as someone living with psychosis who works in one of the leading psychiatric hospitals in the world, and also as a vocational specialist. People tend to discriminate and even if they have good intentions, there are many times people have unconscious bias they are not even aware of that I have seen alter the way people talk to me, treat me, and decisions they make regarding me.
This being said, when taking time off from work for a medical leave we also tend to recommend that less is more. Under the ADA law, you do not have to tell your direct supervisor or any of your coworkers your diagnosis whether it’s a psychiatric diagnosis or any other ailment that might be keeping you away from work. This being said, we tend to recommend for people to contact their HR department when in need of a leave of absence for a psychiatric condition, or if you are needing workplace accommodations as well. Human Resources has a responsibility to maintain HIPPA confidentiality with your personal information when requesting time off for medical reasons and their job within this context is to act as a liaison between you and your department manager and to not divulge your diagnosis.
The confidentiality of your information is still being held within the trust of Human Resources, so again we recommend less is more. Different companies may have different policies for how much information they require to approve a medical leave of absence so again if you do not need to mention your diagnosis many times you do not have to. Medical providers such as doctors and counselors have written many time off request letters, so it can be good to talk to your providers to discuss how the letter will be worded and how to include the least amount of personal information possible to secure a medical leave of absence. Again, Human Resources is supposed to be trustworthy however, people aren’t perfect. If you don’t have to give them any more information than they need, the privacy of your personal health information will not even be within their hands and at their discretion to intentionally or even accidentally divulge to other coworkers.
So in returning to work after having had an episode of psychosis or other mental health struggles, many times we discuss accommodations. One of the most common workplace accommodations people request and receive is scheduling. As far as other workplace accommodations there are common ones people request but there are others as well that might help you to maintain your employment and to effectively complete the work. There is no limit on these accommodations as long as they do not put an unreasonable burden on your employer and/or the operations of the company, so you can draw from lists of commonly requested accommodations online per se, or you can get creative as well. Again, the ADA protects you as an employee when you need time off for medical reasons, and this includes weekly psychiatry and therapy appointments.
When I was working in insurance and needed time off to go to therapy weekly, I scheduled the appointments with my therapist on five o’clock on Thursdays which was the latest he could do. I did this because it would help me to take off the least amount of time from work and I wanted to be reasonable towards my company. The company was required to give me the earliest possible shift for that day. As a newer employee this was a shift I typically didn’t have seniority and access to. However, with a doctor’s note, the accommodation was made. So my schedule shifted on Thursdays and for the rest of the week my shifts were the same as they had been.
Another idea that we sometimes recommend is for people to schedule all their appointments on the same day and even back to back if you can to limit the amount of time off you will need. Although employers are required to allow you to attend these meetings it’s always helpful to be as helpful within the process as you’re able to. And again, time off requests and other workplace accommodations are implemented by Human Resources and supervisors do not need to be privy to the nature of the appointment as well. If someone asks, by law you do not have to tell them it is a psychiatry or therapy appointment. You can simply say I have a time off request for these hours that has been accommodated by HR, I apologize, but HR can support this. HR is supposed to be the one to contact your supervisor, so that you don’t have to, but with difficult supervisors it can be helpful to lean on HR for support. One of their primary functions within the company is to protect your rights as an employee.
Another element that we commonly discuss in our vocational groups is the common question of “What do I say to my coworkers when I’ve been absent for an extended period of time?” This can be a very subjective experience, so I want people to just be aware that each individual situation is different and what makes the best sense for each person is important to discuss and to think through before returning. My own experience with divulging my diagnosis has been that in the workplace less is more and that people do discriminate. This being said I do not want to divulge more than I have to with anyone, and when I was working outside of the mental health world I typically didn’t share my diagnosis with anyone. One common response we mention to people in our vocational group is to say that ,“I had a family member who I needed to take care of” or to even say “I had someone that I needed to take care of”. That person is of course you, and this is an equivocal approach, however it’s one approach that might work. Another approach I have taken in the past is to say I just needed time off and it’s not something I want to discuss. This can be seen sometimes as blunt, but it’s the truth, and it indicates to people that I heard what they are saying and I’m just not wanting to share more.
Whatever you decide to come up with as your response to your coworkers we recommend to think it through and process what you’ll say with someone you trust. When I first started out answering these questions I struggled tremendously because I wasn’t prepared, and I know I divulged more than I wanted to which wound up working against me in the workplace. This was a result of being put on the spot with questions I just wasn’t ready to answer. Within this context, no one outwardly discriminated against me but I had consistent fears that people knew more about me than I wanted them to and that I was being treated differently because of it. It’s tough to say whether it was my own self-consciousness that factored into the treatment I was receiving or if it was entirely people just having prejudice and bias towards me. However, whether it was one or the other or both, my experience was that I divulged too much and gave answers I just wasn’t comfortable giving because I was put on the spot with questions. This affected how I felt in a few different workplaces and it affected my workplace performance.
I also had the experience of crafting stories to make it seem like everything in my life had been going smoothly. I used different stories to try covering up the fact that I had a mental health condition when asked different questions about my life. However, I’ve found over the years that this was exhausting for me and did not work out at all. It caused me a lot of distress and in retrospect I think people could see through the stories anyway. I’ve found at this point that I tend to just not talk about subjects I don’t want people knowing about as opposed to trying to make up answers.
I used to think that not talking about a subject indicated things about me I did not want people to know, but I’ve found within my own life this is not the truth. I’ve also found that I don’t want to make up stories any more to make it seem like everything in my life is perfect when I do not have to. At this point I’m a fairly open person, but this was a progression that has taken me many years. I’ve found some people feel fairly open from the start and others are more guarded around personal information. And again, this is a personal choice, there are no right or wrong answers. Currently, I’m working as a peer specialist where I’m expected to share my lived experience.
As I’ve grown more comfortable with everything I’ve been through and I’ve learned self-respecting ways to talk about difficult life experiences it’s become much easier to be more open about my mental health experiences to everyone at work and to more people than I’ve ever been able to.
This post is republished on Medium.
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