Today is the day. It's the start of Partners for Mental Health's new campaign, Not Myself Today. It's also the week that I returned to work after a very short leave due to a recurrence of depression and anxiety. Oh, and it's National Mental Health Awareness Month.Timing, as they say, is everything.
This week has been interesting, to say the least. I was welcomed back with open arms and encouraging words by so many wonderful colleagues (and friends) - it was a bit emotional at times, in a really good way, to feel the support. I was reminded how lucky I am to work for such a great employer and with good people. This is not the case, unfortunately, for so many others who fight mental illness.
But, as always, there is the other side of the story - the people who still don't really understand my battle, and the reality of mental illness, how it manifests itself, how it's not like having a bad bout of the flu. They say they understand but I know that they don't.
Has anyone ever said to you, "you look so tired today." How did that make you feel? Maybe not so great, huh? Perhaps annoyed? I kind of feel the same way when someone says to me that I don't look happy. Happy. What is happy, anyway? And when I am at work I am not necessarily always smiling, laughing and joking. I'm at work. I am working. That doesn't mean that I am not happy to be there. Yes, I encountered this this week and it was a bit of pressure that I didn't need. It's that lack of understanding once again. I get it but it still upsets me at times.
Returning to work can be an entirely new challenge for someone who has been on a disability leave, whether long or short. Luckily, my recent leave was just under three weeks so the return was not as daunting as it could have been. However, I was still anxious about it. I was nervous about what assignments might be waiting for me and how my colleagues might receive me. I knew, in the intellectual part of my brain, that I had nothing to worry about - I have an amazingly supportive boss whom I knew would have already planned my re-entry so that it would be smooth. But the part of my brain where the depression and anxiety live, whispered their lies to me. Just whispers at this point, no longer a roar, but they were there, nonetheless.
The fact is that although depression is an illness, it does not have a predictable life span. My doctor can't write me a prescription for two aspirin and a week's rest and then tell me I'll be all better. It just doesn't work that way. I am very lucky this time around that it was a relatively short bout but the fact remains that it's still tapering off. And that is one of the reasons why I have returned to work on a gradual basis.
In human resources speak, I have returned to work on a "graduated return to work" (GRTW) basis which means that over this week and next, I am gradually working back up to my full hours. As both someone who has returned from disability leave before and as an HR professional, I recommend considering a GRTW if you are returning from a disability leave, whether short or long. In many cases, it can set up the returning employee for success which is win win for the both the employee and the employer. Everyone is different, however, and anyone suffering from mental illness should discuss treatment plans and a return to work strategy with their doctor.
So, back to me. Did I mention that I was in a national newspaper this week also? Yes, I was featured in the National Post as part of a story about Partners For Mental Health's Not Myself Today campaign and the necessity of raising awareness of mental health issues in the workplace. No, I am not mentioning it to brag (although, full disclosure, I am kinda proud!). I bring it up because it also illustrates the values that are important to my employer. My manager shared the story with the VP of HR and he shared it with the Director of Operations (she oversees Human Resources, the division that I work in) who proudly shared the story with our company's leadership team and CEO. That sort of thing speaks volumes not only to me personally but also to all the other employees who fight against mental illness, mostly silently. Maybe some of them will decide not to be silent anymore. I am hopeful.
I was also encouraged to see some fabulous work progressing within another area of our human resources division around creating a managers' tool kit for mental health issues in the workplace. It is so wonderful to see my employer walking the walk! We still have a long way to go but it all starts with one step at a time, and this is a pretty fabulous first step. Sadly, many employers aren't at this stage which is why I am so pleased to see the organization that I work for pave the way for others to follow.
My hope since the day that I started writing this blog has been to eliminate stigma. We will do that by starting discussion and creating understanding. And that is why I am so proud to be affiliated with Partners for Mental Health. Please visit their site and read about how we can create psychologically healthy workplaces. You can also take the Pledge to support mental health initiatives. As I write this, 30, 677 people have taken the pledge. Please help us get to 35,000 - it takes one second and by doing so you will be committing to helping make our world just a bit better! Together, we will change the world - I promise.