Mental Health

Navigating the return to work after time off for your mental health – 10 tips from someone who has been there

Being in work is good for our physical and mental health. But returning to work after time off with mental health issues can be tricky.

A person enjoying the view from on top of the Wrekin

Being in work is good for our physical and mental health. But returning to work after time off with mental health issues can be tricky. 

By Jennifer Green

It’s well known that being in work is good for our physical and mental health.

Working in a healthy, safe, supportive environment where our effort is valued and rewarded provides us with a lot more than just a paycheck at the end of the month.

Great. Stay in work, folks! All well and good, surely? For a lot of people, however, it isn’t so simple. Rates of diagnosed ‘common mental illness’ like Depression and Anxiety are increasing in the UK, and given that many people still suffer in silence- whatever the statistics say the reality is likely to be far worse.

What should we do when our mental health makes anything other than hiding under the duvet all day seem like a challenge akin to climbing the Wrekin wearing your tallest heels, in the snow, blindfolded.

Over the last 24 months I have had to come to terms with the fact that my mental health problems are in fact something quite serious, that means I now have to tick the ‘yes I have a disability’ box when people give me paperwork. I have unfortunately been left unable to work on several occasions.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I love my job, but there are times when my illness manages to convince me that I simply can’t do it. I lose all motivation, all ability to concentrate, and can barely string a coherent sentence together let alone be productive at work.

Even after the crisis, when I have found myself starting to feel better and I know that returning to work is the next logical step, it can still be incredibly difficult. Yet if you don’t take that first step – you will remain exactly where you are. Living under the duvet with your dog (great in the short term, but eventually you will need money for dog food if nothing else).

sad pug under bed covers

This article is written for all of the people who have already taken the very scary step of sticking your head over the metaphorical parapet and declaring to your boss, your loved ones and your GP that you just aren’t functioning (insert hysterical cry-laughter here). You have stopped, discovered that you can rest your mind in very much the same ways that you can rest your body, you have followed advice from your GP, and you are feeling well enough to try to return to work.

Here is what helps me:

1) Take your medication

Blue and White pills

No, not technically a work issue but it’s my number one tip every time. Take what your GP suggests, how they suggest it, when they suggest it, consistently enough for it to kick in and help. Do not spend hours wondering what having to take medication for your mental health ‘means’ – no one asks what it says about your personal coping skills when you have to take a Lemsip.

2) Talk to your manager – if not them, talk to HR

A good employer should help you feel able to do so without being judged. I had no idea how kind and supportive my management team could be until I told them the truth and allowed them to help me.

3) Go easy on yourself

Getting out of bed, getting dressed in something clean and vaguely appropriate, eating a respectable meal & arriving at your desk without giving up can all be really hard work! These are battles that you have to win before your colleagues have even finished their morning cuppa.

4) Pick the day that you are going to come back

A dog feeling depressed and anxious about life

I picked a Friday so that I knew I would be able to do my first day back and then take the weekend for a rest. People can be miserable on Mondays, avoid it.

5) Review your workload

You should be able to work with your manager to make sure you are taking on the right amount of work. You might be trying to do much more than you need to, or perhaps you need a new project to ignite some enthusiasm?

6) Make a task list

Make a list of things to do on your first day and then eventually first week, first month and so on. Don’t leave the small things off! Don’t make your task list ‘just after I have checked these emails and put this letter in the post’ – your first task is checking your emails, your second task was putting the letter in the post. See what I mean?

7) Try to practise honesty with colleagues

Its 2017, we shouldn’t be ashamed of our mental health any more. Personally I have recently taken the decision to stop lying to people about ‘mystery viruses’. When people ask me, I have started telling the truth about why I am off work. I have felt only relief.

8) Do what you can outside of work to help

Cycling 1

There is no mental health issue which will not be improved at least a small amount by practising your sleep hygiene to try to get some good quality sleep, try to eat healthy food on a regular basis, get enough exercise and often, and using the support available from family and friends.

In Telford our Healthy Lifestyles  team will give you a free health check followed by simple, evidence-based and safe advice on making these changes.

9) Does your boss need some help?

Providing a bit of guidance to your boss can be helpful. I sent a guide, produced by a charity, about my mental health issue to my boss that was about how to support an employee with my illness.

If you are an employer wondering how you could help your staff, we have a project called Work Well in Telford, which provides free advice to employers to help them understand how to support their employees’ health and wellbeing.

10) Try to quit smoking

FYI, people with mental health problems are more likely to smoke, more likely be heavier smokers, and have higher rates of mortality due to smoking related illness.

The good news is that you are 400% more likely to stop smoking with professional help – in Telford our stop smoking service will even give you free stop smoking medication. Contact Healthy Lifestyles to find out more.

Any other tips?

Handstand on a beach

What about you? What tips do you have?

If you have any advice to share to help deal with anxiety or depression, let me know in the comments below.


  1. Being a sufferer myself – go gently, you are stronger than you give yourself credit for. It’s all about small steps and recognising just how much you have achieved, often when you don’t feel like doing anything.

    1. Thank you Dianne, that is excellent advice.

      You are right that we should be kinder to ourselves sometimes, it’s easy to focus on what is difficult or isn’t being done and to overlook the small positives. I hope that you practise this with yourself too.

      All the best – Jen.

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