7 Things to Keep in Mind when Thinking About Returning to Work

Last Updated: 9 May 2019

If you’ve been unemployed because of your bipolar, you might be hesitant to try returning to work. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Returning to work after an absence due to mental illness requires a great deal of courage and strength. It may be the most difficult thing you do in your recovery journey. Anyone who has tried, knows this well. Stigma often holds us back from pursuing this important and promising step. But with the right mindset, and some knowledge and tools, returning to work is definitely possible.

Dismiss the stereotypes

There are many stereotypes about employing people with mental illness. Common misconceptions are that we are not ambitious, hardworking, or capable. It has often appeared to me that people associate mental illness with diminished capacity. We each need to recognize these discriminatory and prejudicial attitudes so that we can be prepared to face them head on when returning to work. Be strong and confident and know this is not you. You are so much more and have insight that people without your mental health experience lack.

You haven’t lost everything

When I first got sick. I felt that I had lost everything in my life, including my academic and work achievements. Unfortunately, the attitudes of others towards us perpetuates these negative thoughts. I was a lawyer and had completed a leading Ivy League MBA program. Despite that, my old psychiatrist thought I should forget my old ambitions and target a minimum wage job when returning to work.

While I agreed that certain work environments wouldn’t make sense and that I would have to take a step back, her guidance was extremely discouraging to me, given my historical interests and goals. Those who try to limit us and “protect us” from further disappointments need to realize the adverse consequences those actions can have on us, on our self-esteem. This includes our doctors and sometimes our caregivers. We don’t lose our past accomplishments with a bipolar diagnosis, and we aren’t incapable of new accomplishments.

Be willing to take a step back

I was reluctant to seek and take a job for a long time, because I knew that I was unlikely to obtain a job that would place me at the same level as my peers. It took a bit of time to acknowledge that I was not—and didn’t need to be—on the same career path I had been on. I had to just do my best and focus on what I was doing, not what could have been.

We have to stop comparing ourselves to others and their accomplishments. Doing so ultimately makes us devalue ourselves and discourages us from returning to work. Be willing to take a step back and work hard to do the best that you can.

Explaining gaps in your resume

This one definitely kept me from even applying for jobs. I’ve often thought the single biggest thing employers can do to help people with mental illness return to work is to “not mind the gap.” It’s difficult for people with mental illness to even get an interview because of gaps in our resume. And when we do get an interview, we will very likely be asked about those gaps. You can’t exactly answer, “I’m sorry, but I had to spend a little time in the psych ward.” We should be comfortable explaining that we had a health issue, or specifically a mental health issue, without it hurting our chances.

Employers need to:

  • Understand that mental illness is common, treatable, and doesn’t have to impact our capacity to work. If we have chosen to disclose our illness, it demonstrates insight and control of our condition.
  • Proactively recruit people with mental illness. Make it clear they have a welcoming environment.
  • Respect that disclosing our illness is strictly a matter of choice. If we explain that a health issue caused the disruption then the interviewer should be satisfied and probe no further.

While you are out of work, I strongly encourage you to consider volunteering or taking classes. This will reduce the number of gaps on your resume. 

Asking for accommodations

We need more accommodations in the workplace. Employers need to realize that accommodations for people with mental illness are not only beneficial for us, but for other employees as well. It has been shown that accommodations are relatively inexpensive and easy to implement. These accommodations include allowing people to work remotely or having flexible work hours. Anyone who has taken a highly sedating medication or experienced depression knows that some days it can be really hard to start the day.

We should seek out professions that are more receptive to accommodations. We should be realistic about our limitations. As we work more, we will develop better work skills, adjust our work behaviors to remain healthy, and better structure our days. But it can take time to work up to this. It can be challenging to know the best time to talk about accommodations with employers. The interview may not be the best venue to discuss accommodations. It might be more constructive to raise the issue once you’ve been at the job for a few months and have a better understanding of your needs and limitations.

Seeking understanding 

Employers and employees need better mental health education in the workplace. This sends a clear message from management to employees about the importance of mental health, helping employees with mental illness feel more comfortable.

When I started to build ForLikeMinds, I wanted the people I worked with to understand my mental illness in the interest of our working relationship. I explained my illness and my triggers. I explained that I would likely be triggered at some point during this highly stressful process. My web developer was very understanding and we were able to work through it, but it was challenging. They respected and accommodated my triggers.

Exploring alternative careers

I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. As stressful as it is at times, I was convinced that my mental illness could not keep me back. It required me to take a risk. Many of us and our families are afraid to let us do so. They’re protecting us. Sometimes, taking that risk pays off; it’s important to try. But it’s also important to recognize that things won’t go smoothly and they may not work out. Don’t be discouraged and remain patient to increase your chances of success.

Another emerging profession for people with mental illness is peer support specialist. A peer support specialist is someone with mental illness in recovery who helps others try to reach recovery. Peer support in all forms is found to be beneficial to not only the recipient, but also the giver. There are about 10,000 peer support specialists in the United States. They’re working in community behavioral organizations, hospitals, and clinics alongside clinicians. They’re using their lived experience to help others reach a rich and rewarding position. You can learn more about peer specialist contacts in your state by reading the Peer Specialist and Certification Programs: A National Overview. It’s a very worthwhile position to consider—you’re open about your condition, you can benefit from accommodations, and you’re helping someone just like you.  

As you can see, reentering the workforce is challenging. Things must change to make it easier. We, and our loved ones, must advocate for more employment opportunities and easier reentry into the workforce. We would benefit greatly—as currently 65% of people with mental illness and 85% of people with serious mental illness are unemployed. Notably, work has been identified by psychiatric rehabilitation practitioners as a key factor to sustained mental health recovery.

Finally, people with mental illness also must not, cannot be, held back by stigma. We need the opportunity to reclaim our lives. There is so much people with mental illness can contribute to our society, but we have to fight for it. People with mental illness, our friends, and caregivers need to unite to address this great challenge. Join me!

About the author
Katherine Ponte, BA, JD, MBA, NYCPS-P, CPRP, is a Mental Health Advocate and Entrepreneur and lawyer. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness. You may follow ForLikeMinds on Facebook. She is on the NAMI New York City Board of Directors. She has also been living with severe Bipolar I Disorder for over 15 years and is currently living in recovery.
  1. I’ve dealt with this issue a lot throughout the decades. One cannot tell the *absolute* truth about employment gaps, and expect to get a job offer – that’s the reality. An employer might leap to the assumption that you’re not reliable.

    Thus, I learned to tell my own truth, and it always worked for me. I say I had to take time off to care for a very ill family member. See, that really is the truth – I just don’t mention that the ill family member who needed care was myself. My truth has never failed me in obtaining jobs. Then again, I also am an RN, a field in high demand in recent times. Thus, prospective employers never pressed me for any details, even if there were 2-3 sizable gaps in employment. Good luck to you.

  2. I really like your article. The section about gaps in your resume does leave me a bit confused/concerned. You refer to a lot of “shoulds” but many of those things don’t happen in the real world. How do we work around the lack of understanding, the pre-judgment, and the necessity to fill in “the gaps” in detail?

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