How should I prepare to return to work after medical leave?
May 26, 2014 10:19 AM   Subscribe

After being off work for medical reasons for more than a year, I'm tentatively looking to return to work within the next 3 months. If you have been in a similar situation, what worked well for you, and what would you do differently?

My medical leave was because of severe depression and anxiety, the results of a combination of several very intensely stressful circumstances. Most of those circumstances are now resolved or at least under control. My depression and anxiety are considerably improved, through medication and therapy. And while I wouldn't call myself recovered, I appear to be as close as my various doctors think I'm going to get, meaning that low-level symptoms will be ongoing.

Work was a stressor, although the specific project that caused the most stress has been taken over by somebody else in my absence. So I'm not sure at this point what work I would be going back to. I and others felt that it was a toxic workplace, though I'm not clear how much of my perception of that was reality and how much of it was a result of my illness. I'm prepared to give it a try for a period of time before considering whether to look for another job if it proves to be unworkable.

I'm well supported by my doctors and insurance company, with the latter paying for various programs to improve mental and physical fitness. There is money there to support me with additional therapy around the time I return to work, and over the remaining 2-3 months of my leave I'll continue with therapy and other programs. Return would be gradual, starting with part-time a couple of days a week, building up over several weeks to full-time. The insurance company will help me negotiate the schedule, the type of job I'll be returning to, and any other factors, such as maybe working at home part of the week.

Specific things I'm wondering about...

In addition to the programs I'm already doing, what else can I do in my remaining time off to best prepare myself for returning to work?

What mistakes should I look to avoid?

If you've been in this position, how much information did you give about your past and ongoing health issues? I know I don't have to tell them anything but giving some detail might help with accommodation of things like working at home. (The CEO in particular has made negative comments about people with mental illnesses in the past, so I'm not sure what kind of reception I will get, no matter what level of information I share. I'm sure people at the office have figured out why I had to take time off.)

If you're an employer who has had an employee in this situation, what would your expectations be to try to make this process easier for everyone?
posted by spiraldown to Health & Fitness (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can you add what country and/or state you are in? It may make a difference in terms of both what is customary and what you are entitled to.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:01 PM on May 26, 2014

My experience (a much shorter leave, ~4 months) was that nobody really cares. Yay! You're back. Now we're working...

In terms of preparing yourself - try a few trial runs of whatever your commute is like, and see what feelings come up.
posted by colin_l at 2:48 PM on May 26, 2014

I would offer no information to anyone about my health issues. If asked, I'd say, "I was out on medical leave and I'm doing much better, thank you. How are you? It's good to see you" It's nobody's business why you were away and I'd say that whether you were out for mental health issues or cancer or fleas. I just don't like to share that much at work. Your health is your business.

Take lots of notes if that's the kind of thing that helps you. I wrote down everything the first few weeks at a new job, and looked my notes over at night and in the morning before going in. Be good to yourself and be patient with yourself. Good luck!
posted by Kangaroo at 6:59 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm in Ontario, Canada. Thanks for the answers so far.
posted by spiraldown at 4:24 AM on May 27, 2014

I went through about 14 months of cancer treatment a few years ago (worked part-time from home for portions of treatment, then was off entirely for other portions). I was open in general terms with my immediate coworkers/supervisors about my health and treatment, but that's because we were a very close-knit group to begin with, and also because my treatment also resulted in long-standing residual pain/health issues that I had to manage even when I went back to work.

That is all pretty different from your circumstances, which means I agree that you shouldn't share the details of your health and health care at work (especially given your CEO's attitudes about mental illness). You can acknowledge that you were out for health-related reasons as necessary, and redirect the conversation as suggested above.

Regarding working at home or other accommodations you may need, find out what they (whoever "they" is -- HR, your supervisor, etc.) need to know from you in order to do so -- for example, do they want you to have a routine set of days you can work at home, or can you work at home at your own discretion if you're not feeling well, provided that you contact your supervisor the night before, etc. Frame it as something you want to work with them to manage so that everyone benefits. Since the insurance company is helping you negotiate some of this, I would also ask whoever you're working with there for some advice on this score regarding what your company can and can't do in terms of accommodating you, what information you should or shouldn't offer, etc.

Finally, regarding a toxic work environment: I had the epiphany right before I went back to work full-time that I did not go through the grueling process of saving my life in order to have my life ruined by work. This made me a lot more open to finding strategies to help prevent the daily dysfunctions and crises of work from diminishing my quality of life. I found these audiobooks to be very useful on that score, especially as I got in the habit of listening to them during my commute.

All the best to you.
posted by scody at 1:12 PM on May 27, 2014

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