Skip to main content

Mental Health

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Return to Work

Ready or not?

Karen Six

Web-only article from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5(3)

stock photoHow long is this gonna take?” I wailed, sobbing so hard that snorts and bubbles of mucus and tears choked and blinded me. “I’m never going to be back to myself. The future just stretches out forever in one long grey tunnel.”

My doctor responded with a firm voice and intimate concern: “It’s going to take as long as it takes. I know that may not sound like an answer to you right now, but as you get better, and you will get better, you’ll see.”

This advice seemed infuriatingly vague to me. I wanted specifics. Dates circled on my calendar. That was seven years ago.

A dominant theme during my recovery period was my driven need to go back to work. As it turned out, a return to the workforce was one of the very last pieces to fall back into place. This caused me a mountain of anguish as I struggled with the conflicts between what I thought I should be doing, what my will was dictating, and what kept being presented to me.

Work ready? Or work needy?

Now I work every day with other people who have chronic illnesses, mental illnesses or permanent injuries, and who want to re-enter the workforce. And every day, through my clients’ experiences, I can see the wisdom in: “It will take as long as it takes.”

We all tend to confuse work ‘needy’ with work ‘ready.’ We need work for all the usual reasons: money, purpose, diversion from our thoughts and emotions, dignity and social interaction. After a profound depression or other psychiatric collapse, we have even greater need of these things. But being actually ready to take on the challenges of a workplace? That’s something different.

Is there some test for work-readiness that we can take? A 10-point questionnaire? We wish.

So how can we determine if we’re well enough to go back to work? Becoming ‘able’ to get through our everyday tasks is not enough. I think it may be a matter of vitality, of having resilience. Resilience is a physical and mental vigour that enables you to learn, expand and develop from your work. This is vitality. Only when we regain our vitality are we fit to return to work.

  • What factors hindered my successful return to employment?
    • Going off and on and off and on the meds
    • Trying to return to the same job that had been a big factor in my illness
    • Denying and ignoring other factors in my life that seemed too big to confront
    • Trying to do it all on my own, with little or no counselling support
  • What factors helped me regain the vitality to work?
    • Staying on the meds—a consistent dosage for two years minimum
    • Attending to the factors in my life that weren’t bringing joy: accepting, forgiving, letting go, grieving and moving on
    • Exercising (I attended a gentle class three times a week for three years)
    • Napping whenever I was tired
    • Painting, knitting, writing, cooking—anything creative (once I had enough energy)
    • Exploring whatever felt beautiful, meaningful or sacred to me

My recovery—not a blueprint for success

What did I do in my own recovery? I ignored my health care providers and, after only 10 months, returned to the job I’d had. This is what I thought I should be doing—getting better damn quick! Within six months I relapsed and had to begin recovery all over again. That took another year.

Even after a year, I still didn’t have the vitality to make a career change. But I told myself that because I’d had a rest, was doing well on meds and had support from my family, I would succeed through sheer effort. I went back to my job—and again couldn’t sustain being there.

Deeply discouraged, I spent the next year and a half searching, with a kind of heroic desperation, for other highly skilled, emotionally and mentally demanding jobs. This is what my will was dictating—returning to a semblance of the life I had before my breakdown. Also, professional work often offers conditions more supportive of mental health. These include daytime hours, flexibility in work arrangements, a cubby or office of one’s own (important for an introvert) and “professionalism” in communications.

I also applied for unskilled labour jobs: cleaning houses, pumping gas, selling subscriptions . . . As a professional, this potential return to unskilled labour presented a profound challenge to my ego. My ‘self’ has been built, to some extent, on achievement and education. And, it can be hard to find daytime working hours, a willingness to accommodate part-time, limited exposure to the public, and considerate employers and fellow employees. These requirements for mental health can be hard to come by when scrubbing toilets, stocking the shelves at the Big Box store or manning the 7-11.

Now, three years later, I can clearly see what I was absolutely unable to see at the time: I didn’t have the fortitude, the moxie, the confidence or the stamina (physically or emotionally) to succeed at a job—any job. I thought I did. But I didn’t.

Could I have actually heard somebody if they had told me I wasn’t work-ready? Ha! A number of people tried. And I would nod and agree and go home to type up a few more cover letters.

The only thing I could seem to understand was the harsh voice of rejection. This, along with exhaustion and despair, is what kept being presented to me. There was a general and widespread reluctance from the workforce to let me back in—in any capacity.

In the depths of rejection, where bitterness and personal insecurity lie, I felt I was being singled out and punished by life. Now I see that everyone who has ever been unemployed for a long time has to ride this emotional roller-coaster. We swoop from optimistic goal-setting to abject apathy, from ‘go-get’em’ starch to bedraggled lethargy and doubt. That is not a fun ride. It’s a particularly dark ride when you’re also ill or in pain.

But rejection can also mean protection. Maybe we’re being protected from a situation where relapse is certain.

About the author

Karen is an Employment Advisor in Vernon, BC. She is a mental health consumer and works with a client base that includes other consumers


Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.