How to recover while signed off work for mental health

Mental Health

Being signed off work for your mental health is the first step in your recovery. Here, we share some tips to help you feel better, from someone who’s been there themselves

When I was signed off work, looming deadlines filled my head while the prospect of letting colleagues down weighed heavily on my already jumbled conscience. After about two weeks of sleeping the days away, barely eating, and crying in the shower, I realised I needed to get better – to untangle my thoughts and figure out how I’d reached this point. By taking this time off, I was taking action, and I was going to recover.

If you have recently been signed off work because of your mental health, it helps to remember that you’re not alone. Approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, and almost 15% of these are work-related. It’s far better to take the time you need now rather than risk feeling worse further down the line.

Whether you’ve been signed off for two months or two weeks, it can be difficult to know what to do next. But from someone who has been where you are now, here are some tips on how to best manage this time.

1. Switch off completely

First things first, stop feeling guilty about work. Set up an out of office on your email, and delete any work-related apps from your phone. In fact, put your phone completely out of reach if it tempts you to check things. Once you’ve informed your employer you’re taking a break, they should know to keep their distance, and only check-in when appropriate. In the meantime, concentrate on yourself – and remember that you are more than just your job.

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2. Maintain structure

You may want to climb into bed and stay there forever. Mental illness is a master at masking reality, which is why it’s so important to fight back by implementing daily routines. Set an alarm every morning. Brush your teeth, eat three meals a day, and change your clothes. Even if you can only do something very small, like splashing cold water on your face, it’s still an achievement. These are the things that make us feel human again.

3. Be social

A common misconception about being signed off work is that you shouldn’t leave the house. My doctor actually advised going away somewhere, because staying inside all day is only going to fuel the isolating impact of mental illness. While lockdown may restrict your options for the time being, you can still go out in the fresh air for your daily exercise, do the food shop, or call a friend for a catch-up. Being honest about your situation with others will help you to feel lighter, as well as offering perspective.

4. One thing at a time

You don’t need to have everything figured out by the time you return to work. Life is overwhelming, and recovery is a journey, so tackling things bit-by-bit makes the obstacles along the way seem more manageable. I did this by writing to-do lists. Every morning I would write three things – only three. At the end of each day, I would tick them off and feel a little boost in confidence. For example: take medication, do the washing up, cuddle the cat. As time goes on you’ll find yourself tackling more challenging things.

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5. See your doctor regularly

The most essential step to recovery is staying in regular contact with your doctor. Make appointments, keep track of your medication, and look into other forms of support such as counselling – a lot of professionals now offer online or over-the-phone sessions, too. When you feel ready to go back, work with your GP to discuss a phased return to ease you back in with reduced hours or days, depending on your circumstances. Sometimes returning to work can be the best thing, giving your life back the structure and support it needs.

6. Get outside

Try to walk somewhere at least once a day, even if it’s just down the road for a bottle of milk. Being physically active, especially in green spaces, has been shown to improve self-perception and self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and even help those who are depressed to recover. The breeze on your skin and the sound of the trees rustling overhead brings you into the present moment, making you aware of your surroundings and less consumed by your thoughts. The more I walked, the more alive I felt, contemplating a future that made me hopeful again.

To talk with a counsellor about your mental health or for extra support visit counselling-directory.org.uk

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