Returning to Work After a Mental Health Break
Working in the charity sector can be extremely rewarding—it provides a sense of purpose, giving us a reason to strive for excellence every single day.
But no one ever said that saving the world was an easy task. Yes, the work we do is extremely worthwhile, but it’s also extremely emotionally charged. We’re close to the problem; invested in making a difference because we work directly with the people we’re helping. And when that doesn’t go well, it can take a toll on our emotional health.
So if the pressure becomes too much and you need to take a bit of time to recharge, it’s important to know what to expect when you return back to the workforce full-time.
Remember, taking a break is completely acceptable
Section 6.1 of the Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. In other words, your mental health is covered by the law.
But even more importantly, it’s totally normal to struggle with your mental health because of the work you do. During a Do More Good podcast, Mandy Johnson, the previous CEO of the Small Charities Coalition, touches on just how common this experience is. She recalls how she was unable to ‘switch off’ from work and acknowledge her achievements, ultimately suffering a breakdown in 2018. What she discovered was that she needed to understand why it happened before she could heal. Through self-reflection, she learned to be more aware of the triggers, which allowed her to continue supporting the sector as a charity consultant.
So if you think you’re ready to go back to work, then we fully support you. But first, consider taking the following advice. The more you know, the easier the transition will be.
1. Test the waters with volunteering
Remember, there’s no pressure to go back to work quickly. Work is an additional stress. It requires support and self-management, especially on the difficult days.
So maybe before jumping back into things full-time, you might want to consider volunteering. It still provides you with the feel-good sensation of helping your community, but without all the burdens of accountability. And you can fit it around your routine more easily during the earlier, and perhaps more intense, stages of the healing process. Believe us, plenty of charities will be keen for your support.
Volunteering provides structure and will help you to regain that sense of achievement in the charity sector. And you can use your story to inspire others, especially if you decided to work with mental health charities like MIND or Rethink. The two-way communication creates a symbiotic relationship with the wider community; listening to their stories about progress and set-backs may help you too.
2. Ask yourself—should you be following a new path?
Having the time to reflect on the work you were doing can be so insightful. And it gives you the opportunity to dissect some of the issues that affected your mental health. You need to ask, was there an inner conflict between yourself and the role? If so, then maybe it’s time to pursue another organisation or type of role within the sector.
There are plenty of jobs that utilise your skillset and personality. You don’t need to stick to just one role or organisation simply because it’s comfortable. And this advice is relevant both for those changing jobs within the sector and those just entering it.
Take a look at what charities are hiring today and see if any roles stand out to you. And of course, don’t be afraid to reach out to these charities directly to show you’re interested and ask about the type of candidate they’re looking for.
When it comes to the interview stage, remember there are no legal obligations for you to disclose your mental health, even when asked by interviewers. Whether or not you divulge this information is entirely up to you.
TalkSpace mentions nine ways to explain such gaps; for example, emphasising other activities or explaining the break and lessons which you learnt in your cover letter. In the end, it’s your choice.
3. Know what to expect when you return to your old job
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with going back to the same job. But before you do, it’s a good idea to arrange a discussion with your employer about adjustments. Websites such as BreatheHR provide guidance for employers on supporting employees who have returned to work after a break for their mental health. This suggests that many employers want to help and ensure your smoothest transition back.
Think of some topics to discuss at the meeting so that you feel as prepared as possible. This could include:
- Reduced hours – Working part-time at the start may prevent work from becoming overwhelming
- Remote working – Working from the comfort of home can be helpful, but it’s advisable not to extend such conditions to more than a couple of days because of the reduced social interaction
- Taking frequent breaks – To avoid repeating the same patterns
- Setting structured meal times – Having a set routine could keep you from eating your lunch at your desk or skipping breaks altogether
4. Continuing recovery in employment
Firstly, congratulate yourself on returning to a job and the hard work you have put in to get to this stage. It’s not always easy facing your own faults, but coming through it is what matters. Then, remember that it’s crucial to maintain the support network you established.
Keeping communication open with your therapist will help lessen the severity of any blips. The charity sector, unfortunately, does not have the funding to provide onsite therapy sessions. But it’s your right to be able to book time off work in advance to attend any outside therapy sessions. One hour out of work every couple of weeks or so is far less detrimental than a breakdown and weeks or months off work.
But of course, therapy may not be an option for everyone—it can be quite costly. But there are plenty of free resources out there to support you. Remploy, for example, provides an Access to Work Mental Health Support Service which is ‘available at no charge to any employees with depression, anxiety, stress or other mental health issues affecting their work’. The trained experts help those struggling either to stay in their current job or help them to return.
Needless to say, you’re a driven worker with a passion to help. But being able to help others is only achievable when you also look after yourself. Where possible, attend activities which you enjoy outside of work. Yoga classes, a meet-up with friends and reading groups are just some of the ways to rewind, reset, and help you tackle the working days.
Alongside her studies and working at a law firm, Kath Walkling has taken the time to volunteer with a number of charities. She believes that it is crucial to support our communities; allowing us to see the benefits which we can bring to others and how they also enrich our lives. Check out her LinkedIn for more information about her work experience and volunteering projects.