By Phoebe Bennett

I returned to my job at a Management Consultancy in November 2013 after over two years of sick leave due to bipolar related depression. My return has been somewhat rocky, with some real ups and downs – but I am now in a good place and am feeling positive and confident that I can be productive and successful. I hope that my experience can help provide some guidance to others returning to work after a period of leave.

Here are 10 things that I wish I had been told when I returned to work – some of which I did, and some of which I wish I had done!!

  1. Don’t expect that the organisation will be the same place as it was when you went on leave

The organisation and people will have changed. Make an effort to get to know new people on your team. Get up to speed on your team’s strategic and organisational developments. But don’t try to build an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything that has happened in your absence, you don’t need to know everything to do your job well!

  1. Go easy on yourself

I found that I got both mentally and physically very tired. I had got out of the habit of commuting and focusing on work all day and it was tough to adjust back into the routine of work. There were some days where I would sit at my desk and struggle to keep my eyes open!

Don’t expect that you will be firing on all cylinders when you start back; don’t beat yourself up if you don’t function as well as you used to initially. It will get better.

  1. Look after yourself

Try to look after your physical and mental health as much as you can. Try to get out of the office at lunchtime and go for a walk to clear your head. Get enough sleep. Eat properly. Exercise when you can. Meditate. Try to find time to do the things you love with people you love.

  1. Find allies

I am lucky to have a very understanding and kind line manager and career counsellor who have both known me for a long time and seen me at my best and worst. They have been very supportive in helping me shape a role that I can cope with that is both challenging yet not too stressful.

Try to find other people who have had a similar experience. I am lucky that my organisation has established a mental health network group and we have monthly catch up calls to share experiences and get support. It is great to know you are not alone.

  1. Try to challenge yourself

It is a really good idea to try and challenge yourself by setting small achievable targets. That way you can see that you are progressing and improving. Try to find a way to push yourself out of your comfort zone – have that difficult meeting with a client, write that presentation you had been putting off etc. This will help you rebuild your self-confidence.

  1. Listen to the professionals

Make sure you listen to and heed the advice of the professionals. If you are on medication then make sure you take it. Even if you do feel better don’t stop taking it without consulting your doctor first. If you are under the care of an occupational health team, work with them to develop a phased return to work plan that is right for you. The first time I returned to work after sick leave I worked very compressed hours, and I didn’t really feel that I had enough time in the office to achieve very much. Follow the plan agreed with occupational health but be prepared to go back to them to amend it if it is not really working for you.

  1. Reignite your networks

Rebuild relationships with old friends and colleagues. Try to join in with team social events. I realise this can be hard if you are lacking self-confidence, but it is a great way feel engaged and involved again.

  1. Sharing helps

I have found that being open and honest about my condition has really helped. Mental health issues such as depression are so common, that invariably when I tell people about my condition they talk about someone else they know who has experienced similar issues. But make sure you are feeling strong enough to share – although crying can be cathartic it is not always a good idea to cry your eyes out in the office (I’ve been there and it wasn’t a great experience).

  1. Work with HR

I have a great HR lead that has been very supportive. She helped me to negotiate an exemption from the performance management process for the first year, which certainly alleviated the stress on me as I got used to working again. Be very clear with HR and your Line Manager about what they expect from you and what you feel is realistically achievable.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Try to become aware of the triggers that could cause a relapse – for me not getting enough sleep, not eating enough or overeating, are symptoms that I might becoming manic or depressed. If you do notice these appearing then do let people know – ideally your healthcare professional and your line manager. It is important to notice the early warning signs and do something about it before the condition worsens. I have given my husband’s contact details to my line manager and HR rep so they can contact him if they are concerned about me.

There will always be good days and bad days, but try to stay focused, positive and most importantly believe that you are able to achieve great things.