Every day, you are working alongside people battling mental illness on some level. One in five Canadians has a diagnosed mental health condition such as anxiety disorder, clinical depression, or bipolar disorder, and most of those people work. Thankfully, and increasingly, employers are beginning to understand this and that the mental health of their employees is their business and a concern to be shared by all.

As a co-worker or boss, there’s a lot you can do to help a person with mental illness flourish in your organization.

Coworker with mental illness

It is commonplace for people with mental health conditions to have episodes where they occasionally feel worse, much like MS or any other debilitating disease. Upon returning to work after a mental health leave, co-workers are often reluctant to talk to them, for fear of saying the wrong thing. Unintentionally, coworkers can avoid people once they’ve returned from leave and/or exclude them from plans for group outings or lunches. This is a product of struggling to relate to what that person is going through, as well as a newly developed routine while that person has been on leave.

For the person going through mental illness and returning to work, these things don’t go unnoticed, and only add to the problem.

As a co-worker, knowing WHAT to say to a colleague who’s come back from leave, and how to treat them, is very important. A simple, friendly opening goes a long way — something like, “Nice to see you back! How are you doing? Let me know if you need a hand with anything.” It’s critical that you treat your co-worker the same as you did before. Maybe you typically chatted about the Raptors game last night, or about your families, or joked about an awkward boss – go right back to that.

As a boss or employer, people coming back from mental health leave often find, or feel as if, they’re passed over for promotions or new assignments. It’s important to know that unless you’re told otherwise, your colleague is ready, willing and able to do all the work they once did.

Knowing how to treat them when they’re in the midst of a mental health leave is equally important. During this time, make sure you maintain the usual contact with them that you would have with someone on other kinds of sick leave, or on family leave. Send flowers or a card, or the occasional email to see how they’re doing (but NEVER pressure them to come back). Those same social activities you’re planning or attending, invite them as you would regularly.

Imagine yourself in their position. How would you like to be treated when coming back from a sick leave?

The invisible nature of mental health can confuse things. Remember: nobody wants to have to take time off for a mental health condition — they’d much rather be working and feeling well enough to work. So, trust your co-worker or employee when they’ve spoken up and respect their need for time off. Avoid, at all costs, making anyone feel guilty about the work that needs to get done while they are on leave, no matter how much it piles up in their absence. Mental health may be invisible, but it’s no less real than a physical illness.

Another consideration is providing a person returning from mental health leave certain accommodations to do their job. For example, some medications taken to help balance the person from leave’s mental health can make them sluggish in the mornings. In this case, perhaps an employee’s hours can be adjusted temporarily. Other solutions could be a quieter work space, or a partial work-from-home arrangement for a time. Accommodating a gradual return to work can also help ensure their success.

Regardless of what your employer chooses to do, each of us can play a role in creating a welcoming and accepting environment to help people with mental illness flourish when they return to work.

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