Return to work

How can things be better? This is a very general question, which doesn’t have much of an answer, so I realise I need to make it more specific. How can I reduce stress at work to enable me to carry on working in a useful way while avoiding becoming ill again? It’s a bit of a mouthful, and it’s very me-centred. That’s not necessarily wrong, as me being at work probably makes some other peoples’ lives easier; on the other hand, adjusting things for me may inconvenience others.

We live in a society that is very much focused on the individual, including the concepts of being worth it, or deserving things to be good. I’m not saying this is wrong, but it’s puzzling, because it doesn’t actually seem to mean anything. It’s one thing being kind and considerate to our fellow humans, but everyone deserving everything going well all the time is nonsensical. We need to consider ourselves in the context of others, and also how what we do affects them. But many of us, myself probably included, have specific circumstances, and for me that is about mental illness, and susceptibility to mental illness, and it can be difficult getting the balance between not wanting to mention this at all, and over-egging the pudding.

I’ve thought quite a bit, recently, about what might help me to reduce stress and stay mentally well at work, and I can’t say it’s easy to come up with anything practical. It’s not like physical illness, where you might be able to make more obvious adjustments – maybe with input from occupational health, who can be helpful, although less so for mental illness in my experience, largely because it’s just not that obvious how to lessen stress. It’s easy, for example, to think that simply reducing workload will sort things, and, if very excessive, it may. However this may also leave someone feeling disempowered and useless, which is more likely to increase stress, so it has to be done very thoughtfully, if at all. And what frequently happens is a reduction in hours but no matched reduction in workload, something which is recipe for disaster in any circumstances.

Exercise and sunlight, especially in the morning, are likely to help with mood disorders, particularly bipolar disorder, and I have been making a huge effort to embrace these in the last few weeks, something that could easily fall flat on its face on returning to work, especially during the winter months. Starting work slightly later, even some mornings, could make a difference, but will this affect others adversely? I don’t believe it will, but what does concern me is that people won’t understand it, and may by irritated by it.

There are other adjustments, some minor, like having a telephone in my room, or some PA time, that I hope may be made. Like many people with anxiety (experienced by many people with bipolar disorder, even between episodes), I have difficulties with phones, and don’t like to admit this, and currently I can’t use my mobile in my office as there is no working Wi-Fi, and mobile coverage is poor. All these things would help, and would not affect anyone else.

But it is perhaps the softer changes and adjustments that matter most, and these are hard to think of and to make, and also to maintain and to justify. These are the human and interpersonal changes, which have, perhaps, become more lost during the pandemic, largely because communication has moved so much towards the online. This is understandable, given the other fears that have predominated, but we should not underestimate the effect on all of us of reducing human contact. The problem, as I see it, is that online communication, particularly for meetings, has proved to be very efficient, in that there is reduced travel. This means that there has to be a very good argument to resume face to face meetings. But meeting colleagues and friends face to face has immeasurable benefit; the mere fact of being with real people reduces stress for many, and I want to make sure that I do this, even if it does mean travel time. I hope that I will be able to do this.

Perhaps most importantly, I want to be supported at work – to have sufficient autonomy and also to feel I am working in a team where I am heard. These are normal things, that many would wish for – you don’t have to have an illness. But I do think they reduce stress, which for me is likely to reduce the possibility of becoming ill. I would like to feel listened to when I have ideas, and I would like to think that people are prepared to try to understand my illness. I suppose, like many others, that I would like to feel that I contribute, and that others are interested in what I do, and what I want to do. I don’t want to have to explain, over and over again.

The best things I have at work are my colleagues, yet for many reasons, some of which relate to the pandemic, some not, I feel increasingly isolated. I hope this will improve, because I think it will make me a better worker, and it will also keep me well. In many ways I am surprised to have survived the pandemic as well as I have – becoming a vaccinator was very positive, but I haven’t felt up to doing this recently.

It is possible that my expectations for support with my illness are unrealistic – what can actually be done in a beleaguered service is nothing like what you might expect from an idealised textbook description, and this is understandable. And yet, I have an illness which is considered a disability (Equality Act 2010), and reasonable adjustments are supposed to happen if required – although who decides that? Ultimately, I’d like to be reasonably adjusted in the workplace, as I think it would help both me and others. I’m just not sure how to achieve it.

One thought on “Return to work

  1. Hi Rebecca,
    Spot on again. I am struggling with all these things you mention. I don’t know if it’s Covid which makes us feel more isolated or whether it’s just the way the world is going. In both my NHS and university jobs I feel an increasing sense of isolation and disillusionment. Do you think that it’s possible to make adjustments for mental illness which really work? I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s part of my illness but when you return to work to staffing shortages and demands left right and centre, what can you do to preserve your sanity?
    Thanks for speaking out.
    Marisa x

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