Returning to work following illness (guest article)

When you have been off work for a while due to illness, it can be difficult and overwhelming to think about going back. Regardless of whether you have a chronic physical health issue or a mental health issue, if it’s going to continue to have an impact on you when you return to work, then it’s important to think carefully about the type of support that you might need in place. This post explores three things to consider when returning to work following illness.

Be kind to yourself

First and foremost, you need to give yourself a break. You’ve been through a life-adjusting illness and things might never be the same again, or you might have been bruised by the sudden realisation that you are not immortal. It is important to take some time to adjust to your new ‘normal’, and to congratulate yourself for taking the courageous step of going back to work.

It is likely that the routine and structure of work will help in managing your health, but it’s important to make sure that you give yourself the best chance of this happening. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so make sure that you are not going back to work too soon. Spend some time looking after yourself – relaxation, using a journal, spending time in nature and walking are all good options – as well as making sure that you’ve got the basics covered of sleep, eating at regular times, and staying hydrated. When you get back into the swing of work, your body will thank you for it.

Work out what you need – and ask for it!

As part of my day job, I run groups for people who are struggling with chronic pain. Many of them are in work, and they plan to give information about their condition to their employers after the group has ended. I think this is a great idea, and I encourage it, but I also ask them to think really carefully about what they want their employer to do with that information.

It is useful for your employer to know that you have depression, or chronic pain, or a problem that causes fatigue, but it’s more useful for them to know the specific impact that has on you as an individual, so that you can work together to figure out what you need to be able to stay in work.

For example, “I have chronic back pain” is not hugely helpful to an employer – they might have a few different employees with back pain, who all manage it differently. Something that is much more useful might be: “I have chronic back pain, which means I’m in pain all the time and it is never going to go away.  For me, it means that after about half an hour of sitting I have to get up and walk around for a few minutes before I can focus again. I’d appreciate a standing desk and a workstation assessment.  Also, it might take me longer to complete tasks because my concentration can suffer in the afternoon. Can you give me an extra couple of hours when you’re asking me to finish x task, because I know I might struggle a bit within the current time constraint.”

That gives an understanding of the condition as well as how it impacts the person specifically, and what they would like their employer to do about it. HR and Occupational Health departments often want to help, but without knowing exactly what to help you with, they might struggle to implement things that are useful to you. Before you speak to them, sit down and write out how your condition has an impact on you, what you’ve been doing to manage it, and how you imagine it will translate into a workplace environment. Focus on what you’re doing well already, and what you might struggle with. This will really help you in the long-term as you can revise this plan according to how it actually plays out when you return to work.

Practice makes perfect

If you have been struggling with pain or fatigue, or even just struggling to get out of bed, it might have been a while since you sat in an office chair. Often the idea of a full week at work is so overwhelming to people that they panic, and ignore the fact that their sick leave is coming to an end. When they come back to work, it becomes overwhelming because they have been away from it for so long, so they end up leaving, convinced that “I just can’t work any more.” This is often not the case.

One of the best ways you can work yourself up to going back into employment is by replicating the activities that you are likely to do when you return to work. Start slowly, and work up to being able to do them with less difficulty.

For example, suppose you need to be able to sit for an hour continuously in a chair whilst you talk to clients, but you’ve spent the last few months unable to sit for longer than five minutes due to leg pain. Start by sitting for six minutes a day, and build it up by a minute at a time over a couple of months until you can sit for an hour. If it gets hard, drop it back down a bit and start to build it up again.

Another example could be if you know that being around loads of people in the office is going to set your anxiety off, go and sit in a coffee shop with your laptop and type (and breathe deeply) until you feel less anxious. Working with a specialist physiotherapist or clinical psychologist can be really helpful to problem-solve these difficulties with you.

Ultimately, we need to recognise that people are not machines – we break down in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways, and workplaces need to be compassionate towards that and give us the chance to continue our role in a way that takes account of our new difficulties. If we can be compassionate towards ourselves, work hard to manage our health and wellbeing, and be specific and clear in asking for help, those are good first steps.

SarahBlackshawThis guest article has been written by Dr Sarah Blackshaw, a clinical psychologist working in Manchester, UK, in the field of chronic pain. She is interested in the intersection of physical and mental health, and how best to help people to live with chronic physical conditions such as persistent pain or fatigue. She blogs over at, and you can find her on Twitter at @academiablues