For many individuals who have suffered from a depressive illness, going back into the work environment after their recovery can be a challenging and difficult experience. Besides having to adjust their own expectations and schedules so as to reduce stress and possible relapse, these sufferers also have to combat prejudiced employers and staff. A recent London conference addressed these important issues and came up with a number of useful suggestions for depression sufferers in this position.
First and foremost, depression sufferers should be realistic when considering future jobs. Bearing their strengths and limitations in mind, they should create a clear picture of what jobs are best suited to their skills. They should carefully assess whether their previous jobs contributed in any way to their depression.
Before considering going back into the working environment, depression sufferers should also know the signs and triggers for their depression and have developed good coping techniques that they can make use of in stressful situations. Most importantly, they should not give up emotional support in the form of counselling, therapy and self-help groups.
The next step in the process involves the depression sufferer doing some research on potential employers and workplaces. It is important to find out potential employer’s attitudes to depression and the kind of support systems that are already in place. The general atmosphere in the workplace should also be assessed. It is best to focus on smaller companies with sympathetic employers who have a greater emphasis on “family values”. Larger companies that have good health facilities and formal support mechanisms are a second good choice.
It is highly recommended that depression sufferers gradually ease into the work environment again rather than throwing themselves straight back into full-time jobs. This gradual entrance allows the sufferers’ to regain their confidence and skills, as well as limiting the amount of stress they will be exposed to. Flexible and relaxed ways of working include part-time work, agency work, voluntary work or working from home.
Application forms can be particularly worrying for depression sufferers. Because of the stigma attached to mental illnesses, many depression sufferers are often uncertain as to whether they should disclose their depressive tendencies or not. From a legal perspective, if the application from does not directly ask about the applicant’s mental health, he/she can chose whether to disclose the information or not. Some employees find it best to conceal their depressive experiences at all costs and fill in suspicious time gaps on CV’s by being inventive, e.g. self-employed, child-rearing. Other employees disguise their depression under the milder terms of “stress or exhaustion”. These terms do not carry such negative stigmas and, as a result, tend to be better understood and accepted by employers.
But depression can also be turned into a good learning experience. Sufferers who decide to disclose their depression to potential employers can emphasise what the experience has taught them and the strengths and coping techniques that they have developed as a result. Their experience can also be valuable in the sense that they can detect early signs of depression in colleagues. It is important that the sufferers are direct and positive in their approach, and show their potential employers that they have come to terms with their illness. In preparing for difficult interviews, it helps if sufferers pre-empt interview questions and practice answering them as well as visualising themselves in the interview situation and image how they would act and respond.
Employers are often reluctant to employ depression sufferers because they are afraid they will be less productive than their non-depressive counterparts. They also tend to worry about the depression sufferer being disruptive and bringing negativity into the workplace. To combat these prejudices, it is recommended that employers be given detailed education about depressive illnesses. It should be stressed that depression is treatable, and that a good percentage of sufferers make a complete recovery.
Employers should further be educated on how to handle an employee who is showing signs of depression. The employer could talk to the employee and show support, and if need be, rearrange his/her work-load temporarily. Another option is to make use of outside sources and contact a doctor or mental health professional for an evaluation.
Wise employers should focus on installing preventative measures for depression in the workplace. These measures could include increased training and support programmes for employees, the acquisition of staff counsellors or the establishment of a link between the company and mental health authorities and the installation of company gyms. Selected managers should be compassionate, easy to talk to and committed to their staff.
On a broader scale, educational programmes and high profile events involving schools, institutions and firms can make a great impact on the larger community and help in changing the public’s stereotypical view of depression. The South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group plays a vital role in this regard by running a dynamic media campaign aimed at de-stigmatising depressive illnesses in all spheres from the family setting to the work environment. (Tel. (011) 783-1474/6)
Going back to work after depression need not be a stressful experience. As long as depression sufferers are willing to approach the working environment with realistic expectations of themselves, and are prepared to carefully plan and research the process, they stand a good chance of successful re-integration into the working world.