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October 30, 2011 8:59 PM   Subscribe

How should I structure my gradual return to full-time work after two months off for a psychiatric illness? Have you actually done this, and if so, do you have tips? Have you even known or heard of someone who did a part-time transition after disability leave? All advice sought in creating my return-to-work plan.

I've been off work since 8/31 (for all kinds of serious mental illness stuff) and my boss is super, super eager for me to get back like, five weeks ago. My EAP counselor has suggested that I come back on a part-time basis, and my boss and I have agreed to this in principle and gotten the OK from the risk management people.

In theory I'm supposed to get the plan for from my psychiatrist. Reality teaches that my appointment with her will last roughly 8 minutes, which is not enough time to go over the situation and explore possibilities. So I have to invent a return-to-work strategy all on my own. This is not my area of expertise.

My biggest concerns are:

a) I need to get used to going to a particular place every single day and doing what other people tell me to do again.

b) I need to establish a lot of new habits and patterns (to put myself in a position to be able to pull this off for months on end.) This will be in some ways very challenging (e.g., I have to transform myself from a 95% passive communicator to basically 100% assertive; I have to actually ask for help when I need it; I have to say "no" when I can't do something.)

c) I need to get used to a new antidepressant (which will hopefully be prescribed tomorrow) that will potentially screw with my ability to get up on time. I'm still sleeping too much and will be fighting off continuing depressive symptoms on the job (I'm resigned to this.)
d) I would like to start to salvage my reputation as a professional can-do person who can be relied upon and who wants to be at work. Said reputation is currently in a state roughly analogous to Dresden in March of 1945. However, I can't put this need ahead of the "don't let things fall apart again" thing.

No one at my job has ever come back part-time after a disability before, and I don't know anyone who's done it in the outside world either, so I have absolutely no idea what to ask the psychiatrist to put in the return to work letter. All the information I was able to find online specifically tied back to maternity leave, which is... not terribly applicable to me. I was thinking four hours a day for two weeks and then six hours a day for two weeks, but I have no reason for thinking that's going to be more or less helpful than anything else.

I am especially interested in anecdotes. I haven't been able to find anyone who actually did this! Google results that don't involve maternity leave are also beneficial.

(I am going back to the same position with the same duties, and the intention is that after this period is over I will be doing exactly what I was doing on 8/30, just without the "driven to collapse" part. My duties will be sort-of limited for the first few weeks - I have to ask for that specifically, too, but I have a better idea about what I'm doing there.)
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! to Work & Money (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Remember that no plan will be perfect. Instead, whatever your decision, commit to the idea of some flexibility, room for evolution and change etc. And, remember, that a point will soon come when planning must stop and starting work must begin. Also, there is no right answer here.
posted by Salvatorparadise at 9:02 PM on October 30, 2011

I just did this.

I recently returned to work after 3 months sick-leave for major depression and anxiety issues (including 1 month in psych hospital).

Things that helped me were:

* Starting back one day a week.
I did this for a month and then increased to 2 days a week, for 3 months. I am about to start 3 days a week. I had to force myself to take my time and increase my hours very graaaaaaaaaaaaaaadually. This has turned out to be a smart thing to do as I did feel the work pressure immediately and it has taken a while to readjust to the routine of getting up, getting dressed, getting organised etc. My employer was very understanding in allowing me to phase my return like this. (YMMV) In theory I was supposed to plan the return to work with my doctor, but I realised that only I knew what I was going to be capable of. I came up with the plan myself and told Dr what I wanted to do and when I wanted to do it. Dr supported me in this.

* Talking to my manager (and HR person) about what I had been through so the severity of my experience was understood.
You don't need to go into all the gory details but it will help Manager to know that you have been seriously unwell but are starting to feel better now. I likened my experience to HR person's recent heart attack and explained that while I was feeling much better, I was still recovering and needed to take things easy as I re-entered the workplace.

* Having another person at work (not a manager - just a colleague and friend) who also knew what I had been through and who was happy to talk with me whenever I needed to.
Friend was always sympathetic and was there to listen and make me feel less weird. Also, once I told Friend about what happened she surprised me with her own mental health story. No one at my job has ever come back part-time after a disability before
But I bet someone at your job knows/loves/is someone who has been affected by a mental health issue.

* I thought I had to be 100% better to be back at work but I realised that being back at work was actually part of my treatment. I used to think I had to solve everything, know everything and do everything at work. Now I give myself a cheer if I get to work on time... and then I see what will happen today. I enjoy work a lot more now.

Here are some resources I found helpful when I was planning my return to work.

Memail me if you want to know more.
Good luck!
posted by sconbie at 9:51 PM on October 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I know someone who did this. (In my department). She came back one day a week for ages (like months) before increasing it. I think this really makes sense because you are practising full work days and all the associated stressors, but you have an entire week in between to recover and plan your strategy for the next week.

When our person increased from one day a week, I think she went to half time on the other days, sharing with the person who had been filling in for her. She never came back to full time (and it's been a couple of years now) but did gradually increase her hours. I think she now does three full days and two half days, spaced, so that T and Th she only comes in in the morning.
posted by lollusc at 12:52 AM on October 31, 2011

Someone I work with (not super closely, but closely enough that I know the story) did this somewhat recently. I don't know what the formal diagnosis was, but he had a fairly public breakdown and had to go and spend some time in an institution, and then came back first part time and then transitioned back to full time. There was a period at first where clearly they were trying to get his meds just right -- he had trouble staying awake in meetings during the first couple of weeks, for example -- but that was fixed fairly fast.

Pretty much everyone knows, at least in this kind of detail; there are no secrets sometimes and people love to gossip. But as far as I can tell no one has been judgmental, and everyone was rooting for him to succeed. So for worth, there's one anecdote of a successful return to a job.

(Actually, two other people I work with had to "take a break" -- meaning check themselves into an institution -- in the last year, but those were short stays and they came back immediately to full time work, with no disability accommodations. Again, everyone knows, and no one seems to care other than as a slightly more interesting piece of gossip than who is having an affair or who got busted for fiddling their expense account. Happily, I think at least a bit of the stigma for this is fading away, which I think helps when you come back to work. But even so, be prepared for both well-meaning but ignorant advice and intrusive questions when you do return.)
posted by Forktine at 6:21 AM on October 31, 2011

I support people with neurological disability who sometimes choose to do this. Here in the UK it seems to be mainly the employer who sets the terms of the return to work after an occupational health assessment, which takes into account reports from all the professionals that have been involved.

For a guy I worked with who had had a (fairly minor) stroke, I ended up working with him to help him understand the very specific things that were difficult for him and work out things that he could do that would help him work around them. We then listed out the things he would not be able to do and what work could do to get round that. We then listen specific things work needed to do to support him. I then put all of that in a report that I sent to him, which he chose to share with work.

In this slightly fictionalised case:
- he needed extra time because he needed to double check all his written work
- he needed people to understand that he was speaking slowly because of the stroke (so everyone else in the office needed to know)
- he needed daily timetabled meetings with his supervisor to check his work to start with, as he regained confidence these would be reduced
- he needed to work from home most of the week to manage his fatigue and continue attending his medical appointments
- he needed a staged return to work, which for him was a couple of hours a day from home for a few weeks, then occasional full days in the office while working from home the other days, and I think the plan was to get back to full time in about 2 months if all went well
posted by kadia_a at 10:05 AM on October 31, 2011

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