Mental Health in the Workplace

The value of work for health and recovery

A person does not have to be 100% well to return to work. Working has been shown to have a therapeutic affect upon mental illness, and can contribute to recovery.

In the great majority of cases, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

The benefits include:

  • helps to promote recovery and rehabilitation
  • improved financial situation, and thus, greater control over one’s life and choices
  • increases confidence and self-esteem
  • creates a feeling of contribution and social inclusion
  • a greater sense of identity and purpose
  • greater independence
  • improved general mental health
  • the opportunity to make friends

The Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Physicians, of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians has produced a consensus statement on the health benefits of work.

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John's story

"So I was kind of looking through the paper at that stage and I decided I'd do a job that was, that I - that would use my strengths, because I really firmly believe that if you're doing a job that uses your strengths and that you're passionate about, you can actually come away energised from it, not weakened by it. And having burned out I think I'm really aware of the things that I'm not that good at, that I used to think I was good at, but I'm not.

So I thought it was good and two days a week, so it was ideal and I went in for the interview, I was fortunate enough to get the job and I, I really enjoyed it. Plus I was drawing from my own experience as well. The course was largely around, resilience and preventative stuff, protective factors for, for young people, but at the end of the course it does talk about, getting help if you need it, help seeking behaviour and I was just able to share a little bit from my experience and say, look I was really unwell and, and by this stage the kids had all gotten to know me as, you know, a reasonably strong person and ah, an educated person, a capable person.

And, I, I think my message really impacted them and kind of snuck up on them a little bit too because they see someone who's, just a normal person saying, you know, I got really sick. So I was, I was quite effective at my job and at the end of the three month period (organisation name) was actually able to, find some funding and I was able to continue on in the, family mental health support service.

And I've seen all the reasons why not to stop working, because now I do some, some workplace mental health stuff as well.

And sometimes people can't stay in the same job if it was that job or workplace that made them unwell.

Sometimes they can change roles maybe, move into a different department. But, you know, work's really important because, you've got relationships at work. You've got a sense of purpose at work. Financially you're going to have a lot of worries if you're not working."

John
Age 34, Victoria
Carolyn* story

I had a very severe bout of depression two times and the most important things about going back to work:

1) it's integral to recovery as it allows you to rebuild your self confidence and self worth and to prove to yourself that you ate not worthless and can do something. A part of depression is of course the vicious cycle of negative self-talk. So getting job is a good way to fight this negative self image.

2) but while it's the best thing to do for someone to recover it is by far one of the hardest and most psychologically exhausting thing I've ever done. This is directly because things that used to be very easy to do are now so hard! You feel like you're doing really badly even if you're not and you feel so different from all the " normal people."

I am a teacher and I started off (when I came back to work) crying in the toilet before the class saying to myself that I didn't want to do it. But as horrible as that was it was absolutely necessary to prove myself that while uncomfortable it was doable! And even if I doing so as well as I used to it's not the end of the world.

So coming back to work is really important - it also allows you to talk to people who dong know about your depression so you can forget about it. It's nice having that anonymity - so I'm not sure that disclosure is always the best thing as people do find if hard to understand the physical and biological changes in your brain that cause you to feel sometimes irrationally upset.

What is important is for your family to acknowledge that what you are doing is hard and that something which was so easy six months ago nod seems like the end of the world to you. I remember hiding my tears from my parents before my first day because they didn't understand and thought I was overreacting.

But I know for a fact that going back to work accelerated my recovery 100%."

Carolyn*
Aged 25, South Australia
* not her real name
Gabrielle's story

"So this psychiatrist tried me on more medication, which helped me get into a sleeping pattern. I continued to work as a nurse for the last 19 years, to keep up a job, to say I can do it. I didn't keep up in a very high stressful area, but I remained employed and I remained to be a nurse, which was my saving grace.

I did that. I came back, got myself a job back at (town name) Hospital; so I had to be brave and say I can go back; and I can't go back being the emergency nurse that I was - that I was so proud of - but I'll just have to do a little bit of part time work; just to keep my, - get me out of the house and keep me alive basically. I started work part time.

Gabrielle*
Aged 42, Australia
*not her real name
Mia's story

"We also found out that my depression was caused by compounded grief and the area I was working in was not really for me although I was enjoying it. Now I am working in the retail sales sector of the community and I although I have only been there about 2 months I feel like a valued member of society and don't go home with all the worries of the world on my shoulders. I also spent some time working in an op-shop which I enjoyed, but the fact I am earning my pay and enjoying contact with people is just great." I did that. I came back, got myself a job back at (town name) Hospital; so I had to be brave and say I can go back; and I can't go back being the emergency nurse that I was - that I was so proud of - but I'll just have to do a little bit of part time work; just to keep my, - get me out of the house and keep me alive basically. I started work part time.

Mia*
Aged 49, Victoria
*not her real name
Michael's* story

"A huge word of advice: when getting back to work take it easy! Start with low pressure, low responsibility type roles and understand that you will have both good days and bad days. The key is building momentum and rebuilding confidence at work. Be around decent people. If the environment is too pressured, get out and find something else. My breakdown was not as severe as some but pretty severe. Getting back to work was a big step in rebuilding, and definitely needed to be handled carefully."I did that. I came back, got myself a job back at (town name) Hospital; so I had to be brave and say I can go back; and I can't go back being the emergency nurse that I was - that I was so proud of - but I'll just have to do a little bit of part time work; just to keep my, - get me out of the house and keep me alive basically. I started work part time.

Michael*
Aged 33, WA
*not his real name
Sonia's* story

"Work was my saving grace after recovering from my second bout of depression and anxiety. The routine, sense of purpose and achievement and the social interaction were pivotal in my recovery. My managers were amazing with their support and allowed me to ease back into the workplace by reducing my hours and responsibilities until I was confident and well enough to return to full hours.

My colleagues respected my privacy and were genuinely pleased to have me back. No-one really asked me any difficult questions which was a relief as I was expecting the worst. I really believe that a well-supported workplace is essential to maintain a person's mental wellbeing."

Sonia*
Aged 31, Victoria
*not her real name