Successful Return to Work
Return to work is an important step in the recovery process for many people with bipolar or depression.
Work is not just important financially. It is an key source of self-esteem and purpose, and a place where many people experience a strong sense of community.
For these reasons, return to work is often an extremely important part of recovery from a mood episode, such as a mania or depression. A successful return to work can further stabilize moods and daily rhythms.
In our clinical work, we put a great deal of effort into helping people with the transition back to work, after a period of disability.
Cognitive Functioning May Take Longer to Normalize than Mood
Part of the challenge of returning to work is that cognitive function typically takes longer to return to normal than mood. For most people, many months after mood symptoms resolve, memory, focus and attention will not be quite back to normal.
We’ve taken to using a screening cognitive test, that can track how well a person’s brain function has recovered after a mood episode. On average, after a manic episode, full cognitive function doesn’t return for up to six months, once a person’s mood has stabilized.
Cognitive testing can be an important way of having a realistic sense of expectations about returning to work.
That doesn’t mean that you have to stay off of work for months, but it does mean that you may want to talk to your employer about less challenging work assignments upon your return. Or you may want to return to work on a part-time basis while you get used to the pace of your job.
If you are concerned about your performance, or if you have a sense that your job was at risk when you left on disability leave, returning to part-time work may be essential.
Another aspect of returning to work involves dealing with some of the upsets or negative feelings that may have developed as a result of the fact that most people don’t leave work on disability without some problems having been pretty apparent at work for a while. Here’s where a mental health professional can really help, by helping to provide an explanation for what was going on, and helping you to explain to your boss about how your moods were affecting your performance.
It’s often perplexing to us why it is that employers feel that there is a “on/off” switch, that distinguishes between a period of disability and a period of being able to work. As a psychiatrist, I am sometimes called upon to write a letter that says that a person is “medically cleared” to return to work. But this notion of recovery from an episode of depression or mania as something that happens all at once is foolish. People recover gradually, and returning to work, at least part time, is an important part of that recovery. For that reason, sensible employers will recognize that a part-time return to work, or a return to work with a change in responsibilities, is the best way of helping their employee.