Reprinted from "Workplace: Transitions" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 11 (3), pp. 5-7
What do transitions mean to all of us? We start as children, with our parents providing for all our needs. Then we make friends, who support us as we move through our school years. Then we get a job. For the unlucky few, the workplace can be a scary place, with autocratic bullies leaving no room for mistakes. Fortunately, for most of us, the workplace becomes our next home: a secure place to earn a living while interacting with others who can become like family.
Many of us spend more waking hours at work than we do anywhere else. Colleagues become our social network. Our job provides for our financial security—and if we’re lucky includes robust benefits to help us with our health needs, too. Most of us will spend 35 to 45 years at work. Is it any wonder that transitioning out of a workplace can be scary as well as exciting?
Transitions take many forms
Transitions happen when you relocate to another city, get a promotion, leave a job because it’s the wrong fit for you, or move to another workplace for a more senior role. I’ve experienced all of these transitions, with all the stresses that come with them. But each of those transitions was ultimately an exciting and fulfilling event.
Not all my transitions were so positive. I’ve also had to change my workplace after spending a year closing down the office and laying off my staff—and then being laid off myself. Not having a job was frightening; I worked as hard at finding another job as I had worked before my termination date. Fortunately, I had an exciting new job within three months. It turned out to be the wrong fit for me at the time, but I still learned a lot in the short year I was there.
I am now about to transition to semi-retirement and part-time work as an independent consultant. After 42 years of full-time work, I have mixed feelings. I’m excited about having free time to pursue all sorts of personal activities. I’ll have no one to be accountable to, no pressures except those I impose on myself. At the same time, I’m not sure what will motivate me to get up every morning, how I will stay energized without a series of tasks to accomplish every hour of every day. Who will I talk to? Who will I laugh with? How will I keep my brain sharp? Will I like trying to find clients? How will I find them? What if I run out of money later? What if I don’t like it? What if ...? Most people ask themselves these sorts of questions when they transition out of work.
The importance of employer support
I have worked in disability case management for the past 20 years. I have seen first-hand what leaving work due to illness or injury can do to workers who can no longer do some—or all—of the tasks required in their jobs. They suddenly lose much of their support system. There is a drop in their income. They no longer have a daily routine and may struggle to find a reason to get out of bed. They often lose touch with friends at work, or are too embarrassed to contact them or too worried that their colleagues now have to work harder to make up for their absence. Their illness or injury might mean they’ve lost abilities; there’s a constant, nagging fear that they will never get better. Sometimes the desire to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs can seem like the only option. These transitions are very difficult.
It’s important for employers to understand the impact that being away from work has on their employees. Employers need to maintain a connection with those on sick leave, letting them know they are valued and missed and that when they return to work, help will be available to make the transition a successful one. Even more important is for employers to recognize the signs that someone is struggling, whether the issue is a physical challenge or a mental health challenge. Many supports can be put in place before things progress to the point that an employee is unable to work at all.
Knowing when and how to offer help
Although I have worked for years with claimants who are on sick leave with mental health disabilities, when I spiraled down into a dark period of depression and anxiety, I did not know what to do or how to take care of myself. This was 14 years ago, when I was managing a staff of 200 in a large disability claims office. At first I thought I was experiencing a longer-than-usual “mood swing” and that I would be able to snap out of it. For over a year, I refused my doctor’s offer of medication. I ignored my husband’s suggestions that my sadness, inability to get things done and constant anxiety were not normal. And I refused to admit that I could no longer do my job. Though I went to work every day, in reality I did nothing but hide in my office and worry over every task I managed to accomplish. I had trouble getting food down, particularly at work. I explained my weight loss to others as something I was working on. When I spent most of my work day in tears and in a panicked state, I finally admitted that I needed help.
My own experience allowed me to see, in hindsight, some of the mistakes I had made as a manager when others struggled with mental illness. I recalled a situation four years prior to my own experience, when I had to terminate someone’s employment because she was not able to do the job she’d been hired to do. Her behaviour towards her supervisor was inappropriate. She felt she’d been hired by the previous manager to do job tasks that were totally different from what the job actually required. I see now that her behaviours and reactions indicated she was likely struggling with a mental illness. She never disclosed that she had a mental health problem, but I had noticed some signs of struggle. I did not know how to open up a dialogue in a way that would have made her feel safe to talk about her illness. Nor did I know at the time how we could have supported her in her job. We terminated her in a very short, very pointed meeting that didn’t give her the opportunity to disclose her health challenges. She subsequently sued the organization. She provided medical documentation for her legal suit; her employment was reinstated, and she was approved for disability benefits.
After my own experience and mistakes, mental health workplace issues became my passion. I became involved with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and participated in the Mental Health Works training program four times, both as a learner and as support to the trainer. I learned how to recognize mental health issues in the workplace, how to approach staff and what actions to take. I then championed this training until all supervisors and managers had taken it in my own office and in the organization’s other offices across the country. I have told my story many times in my workplaces and at the CMHA Bottom Line Conference on workplace mental health. I’ve presented on mental health topics at other conferences in both Canada and the United States. I am now certified as a Mental Health Works trainer; I am also certified in Mental Health First Aid.
Today, I can recognize the signs that someone is struggling with a mental health issue. Accommodations can be made to support the employee and allow recovery, and these accommodations need not be costly. If performance issues are a concern, I can have those difficult discussions and determine if there are underlying mental health issues. If necessary, I help individuals to understand that although their current role may not be the right one for them, there are other opportunities where their skills will allow them to be successful. And if I need to make that difficult decision to end someone’s employment, I can do so with compassion, allowing the individual to retain his or her dignity. Surprisingly, two individuals whose employment I had previously terminated later told me that losing that particular job had been a turning point and that they were now more settled in their lives. One acknowledged it was time to retire, and the other changed careers completely.
My experiences fired my passion for supporting people in need. I learned, and now share, tools and resources so others can successfully navigate transitions in their lives.
About the author
Lucette is a consultant and certified Mental Health Works trainer. She has over 25 years of experience as a manager/director of disability claims operations. Her expertise in disability management is the foundation for providing support and innovation in disability management programs. She has represented Pacific Blue Cross on the steering committee for the CMHA Bottom Line Conference and Women & Wellness events. Lucette actively promotes and supports mental health initiatives within her workplace and the community