Returning to Work After Mental Health Absence Is Tricky, Here’s How I’m Trying to Overcome That First Day Anxiety.
It was a big decision to leave my beloved nursing career but I didn't really have a choice in the end
I have been off work for ten months now, due to worsening symptoms of PTSD and depression over the year that came before. I was an accident and emergency nurse and still am in a way, I feel like that way of life and that part of my career will stay with me forever and I could go back to it whenever I choose. However, a lot has changed in those ten months, and I mean a lot.
I decided to cease working for the safety of both myself and my patients but also to preserve my excellent reputation among my colleagues in various different hospitals and departments. I loved my job and worked too much if I’m honest but the distraction seemed to be doing me good, so I thought.
In the months leading up to my decision to stop working, I could feel my mental health deteriorating more and more which was affecting everything in my life: my work, my relationships, my physical health and my ability to consider a future for myself. As well as being unwell, I was utterly exhausted from working 80 hours a week, just to stay in one piece. Suicide was the only thing on my mind even in between episodes of patient care. Something had to give.
With a little support I thought I'd be back to work in a month, ten months later...
I was already staying with relatives at this point because my health had become such a significant concern for me. Although I still had my mortgage and other household necessities to pay for in my property three hundred miles away, I was able to really cut down my costs, lifting some of the pressure I was under to keep working despite how ill I felt.
With a little help, I believed I would be able to take a short time of work, maybe a month or so. When I eventually started receiving treatment, the mental health team thought the same. However, when the treatment didn’t work, my absence was extended and here I am ten months later finally looking anxiously for work that I feel I’m capable of.
I'm finally feeling like I could work but if not nursing at this time, then what?
Due to the worsening pressures on the NHS as a whole which seem to hit emergency departments the most plus my personal expectation of myself as a nurse, I have decided that nursing might not be the best job to return to at this point.
This begs the question, what else can I do? Nursing has been my life for ten years now but as a direct result, I have grown many skills that may be useful elsewhere. I can trust this when my incessant negative thinking allows me to. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of ‘I can’t do this’, ‘I’m no good’, as I do way too often but I know logically that on paper there’s loads of jobs I could do until I feel ready and have built up the confidence to return to nursing if I ever want to.
So the search begins. What do I want out of work other than the obvious thing, money?
- What work do I WANT to do? I would like to continue working with people, preferably caring for them in some way rather than selling for example. I also enjoy gardening and have an interest in plants and ecology. I love kids and would consider working with them in a nursery time setting. I love health, fitness and wellness so I would be interested in this line of work also. Basically I would like to find work that is fulfilling, uses my already acquired skills and that will develop me as a person and a professional, this is different for everyone but an essential consideration.
- I need flexibility – a place that will allow me to function at my best when I’m well but make appropriate allowances when I’m not well. This could be flexible working hours or set working hours to suit you when you’re at your best as a result of medication or general mood changes. Personally, I would like to start part-time, working mainly late shifts to allow for my sedative medication at night.
- Next I think I would like to be open with my manager about my recent experiences, just in case I feel the need to rely on them for support. This is totally individual, not everyone wants to or needs to rely on colleagues an indeed, I have never wanted to until now. I think openness regarding my mental health is the best option for me at this time as I still struggle with many of my symptoms which may affect my working ability.
- I decided I would like to work in a peaceful environment, somewhere where I can take a breather if I need to. If I have an unexpected flashback for example, that can really take it out of me so a safe place to calm down is essential for me. Again the ideal environment is different for everyone. Previously I have loved busy, fast-paced and really rather stressful places to work and haver flourished in them but I have changed. Now I would prefer to work outside, with plants or a spa with gentle music and calming scents throughout, again a very personal preference.
- Travel times are also an important consideration. Recently I had a physio appointment in a hospital which is normally a twenty minute journey but to arrive on time at 09:30, I had to allow an hour due to traffic. Needless to say, I always arrived stressed out of my mind and often late. I grew to hate this appointment and in the end I decided I wasn’t benefitting enough to make it worth the travelling at this time. So I’m looking for something that is close by so I wasn’t putting myself in a stressful situation before I’ve even arrived.
Importantly, think about reasonable adjustments and how to make work work for you.
Once in work, there are a few considerations that I think I will have to make. Reasonable adjustments are different for everyone but can make a huge difference to the employee. These can be discussed with the manager in order for both the employer to get the most from your abilities and skills and the employee from the job. I’m sure I will get very nervous about this conversation before it takes place but I do feel it’s an important step to take together.
All in all, it’s a huge step to return to work after a lengthy or brief absence from work whatever the reason. However, having a mental health condition makes this harder because it makes everything harder but there’s the added complication of stigma that is still present now. I hope these steps and a good old think will help your job search as it has mine.