Returning to Work After Mental Illness

Returning to work after a prolonged absence is difficult for anyone but considerably more challenging for younger adults who have had a shorter time as an employee.  This is particularly the case for the young adult who is struggling to regulate a mental illness and get back to their workplace. With an eye to the big picture, this process can be successful for both the employee and the employer.

If you have been recently diagnosed with a serious mental illness, perhaps involving a hospitalization for several weeks, it’s important to first accept the diagnosis and allow for proper treatment. Sometimes, once you begin to experience improvement on a new medication regime, you may think that medication is no longer needed. However, it’s crucial to adhere to the treatment your healthcare provider has prescribed; close support from your treating physician is the best way to stabilize your mental health and enable a successful return to work.

Find Out What Support is Available 

Larger workplaces will have professionals available for support such as on site occupational health professionals, union representatives, human resources personnel, and managers. This is often the scenario in public sector work environments such as government and large multinational companies. It should be noted, however,  that in the private sector, only 10.7% of Canadians are employed in workplaces with over 500 employees; thus the vast majority of private sector workers in Canada work in smaller or mid-sized workplaces. Regardless of size and embedded workplace supports, awareness of workplace mental health is growing steadily. Some employers may be receptive to learning about workplace mental health and providing what support they can. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has established national guidelines for employers to support workplace mental health; at present, implementing these guidelines is voluntary. So where does this leave you, the employee? Do your best to find out what supports are available in your workplace. Understand what your rights are, but also understand that not all workplaces will have the infrastructure to assist you. 

After Mental Illness, Create a “Return to Work Plan”

Once you and your treatment partners have determined you’re ready to return to work, a helpful strategy is the use of a “return to work plan”. This often involves gradually increasing duties and hours until you reach full capacity. It’s important to have a clear start date with a gradual increase in responsibilities and hours over a span of 6 to 10 weeks. Ideally, you can actively engage with your employer and available professionals to design your back to work plan. If there is little formal support available, attempt to identify strategies – however small – that might help you and be acceptable to your employer. It may be useful to do a search online to find suggestions that work for you as you prepare to return to work.

Check-In with Your Support Team Regularly

Whether your team includes human resource professionals, union reps and occupational health professionals, or a trusted co-worker and your family, check in often. Continue to seek out available supports and advocate for yourself as best you can.  And remember to be kind to yourself throughout the process. 


Dr Hamer (MD, FCFP, MSc(A), FCBOM) is a Family & Occupational Medicine Physician – now semi-retired which allows him to pursue his interests in worker health and safety. He is a member of the Eli’s Place Board of Directors. 

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