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How to Successfully Return to Work After a Bout With Depression

written by: Keren Perles • edited by: Emma Lloyd • updated: 5/11/2011

Returning to work after depression has forced you to take a leave of absence can be scary. After all, you never know how your employer or coworkers will react. These tips can help you cope during those first few days back in the workforce.

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    Can Working Make Depression Worse?

    It may seem that returning to work can make depression worse. After all, work is a significant source of stress in many people's lives, and people who are recovering from depression may feel that they will lose the little ground they have gained if they return to work. Research shows, however, that the opposite is true: returning to the workplace can actually promote a faster recovery time. For example, a 2008 study done by the Society of Occupational Medicine looked at 555 people who had been out of work for more than 12 weeks due to depression. They then looked at the recovery of subjects who had returned to work by 13 weeks, by 20 weeks, or after this time period. They found that when a person returned to the workplace, their recovery process improved significantly.

    The fact that employment can actually help minimize depression may be due to how a job helps to shape our self perceptions. When people take off from work, they may feel worthless because they are not as productive as they were on the job. Although taking time off work is often imperative after a bout of depression, it can be important to go back to work once you have significantly moved along the journey of recovery. Not only that, but employment provides stability, routine, and sometimes a built-in support group of coworkers, all of which can help minimize depressive symptoms.

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    Challenges You May Face

    When you enter the workplace after struggling with depression, you should be aware of the many challenges that may arise. The most glaring one is the stigma -- due to lack of knowledge -- that is often attached to mental illnesses such as depression. Will people think that you can no longer do your job successfully? Will they believe there is something wrong with you? Will they start to avoid you?

    You may also wonder whether to tell your coworkers why you were out, as well as how to handle specific questions that they may ask you. Should you share all of the gory details with them, or gloss over what happened? Will talking too much about your depression make people think that you're not really over it? Will it be unprofessional?

    There's no right or wrong way to handle these issues -- it all comes down to what feels comfortable and appropriate for you.

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    Tips for Returning to the Workplace

    When you do return to the workplace, here are a few things you can do to make the transition easier for yourself:

    • Ease back into things. That means that you should think about whether you can start off working only a couple of days a week or a few hours a day. You may even want to start working from home, if that is an option in your profession. You may also want to ask your employer if you can take on only some of your previous responsibilities so that your workload will not be overwhelming. Slowly, as you feel comfortable, you can take on more hours and responsiblities.
    • Be as up-front with your employer as possible. Let your boss know ahead of time if you might need to take off for depression-related doctors appointments or therapy. Voice any of your concerns that seem realistic. Ask how the news was broken to your coworkers so that you know how to proceed.
    • Communicate with your coworkers. Although they may not need to know the nitty gritty details about what you have gone through, they will look to you to see how they should react. Talk about what happened in a matter-of-fact way, and they will react in kind. If you don't feel comfortable answering a question, tell them so politely. If you see that one coworker doesn't seem to want to hear about your experience, take note of it and don't bring it up unless necessary.
    • Try your best to create a support network outside of your workplace. This will help ensure that you are not overly dependent on your coworkers.
    • Stick to a healthy diet and exercise regularly to keep depression at bay.
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    References

    Guardian. "Helping Cope With Depression at Work." http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/joepublic/2008/apr/21/helpingcopewithdepressiona

    Mind. "How to Rebuild Your Life After a Breakdown." http://www.mind.org.uk/help/medical_and_alternative_care/how_to_rebuild_your_life_after_breakdown#finances

    Safe Workers. "Returning to Work After Absence Due to Anxiety or Depression." http://www.safeworkers.co.uk/ReturningtoWorkAfterAbsenceDueToAnxietyDepression.html

    The Telegraph. "Depression: Returning to Work Can Help Beat It." http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2074686/Depression-returning-to-work-can-help-beat-it.html

All About Depression

This series of articles discusses concepts related to clinical depression.
  1. How to Successfully Return to Work After a Bout With Depression
  2. Is the Pill Bad News for Your Mental Health?

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