How to deal with being signed off work

In Britain, over 5 million people are signed off work each year. That’s more people being signed off, than the entire population of New Zealand. What’s more surprising is that a large percentage of those are due to mental health problems. Mental health conditions account for up to 31% of cases of sick leave. This is not so shocking, given that 1 in 4 of us will experience a common mental health condition at any given time.  

Did you know that a third of sick notes given in the UK are for common mental health conditions, such as stress, anxiety and depression? It is a false assumption that those who have been signed off work by their doctor, are sitting home, enjoying their time off. Those who have been signed off of work due to mental health problems, are not able to function very well either at home or at work and use the time to reduce the severity of their symptoms. Quite simply, mental health should be thought of in the same way as physical health when it comes to sickness days. You wouldn’t feel guilty about being signed off work for the flu, a broken leg or tonsillitis, so don’t feel guilty for being signed off with depression, stress or anxiety.


So how do you know if you need time off for your mental health?


If you are feeling particularly burnt out or unmotivated, it might be a good idea to take a few initial days off to see if you feel any better being in a more relaxed environment. A few days may be all you need to get yourself back on track as it might be a combination of pressures at work and at home that made you feel this way. Taking some time might make it possible to deal with one issue at a time and reduce the overall level of stress.. If you have been experiencing 2 or more of the symptoms below for at least 2 weeks during working hours, it would be a good idea to visit your GP to determine whether you need to take some time off work.


  • Feeling low in mood to the point that it interferes with your daily activities

  • Not enjoying the activities you normally take pleasure in to the point that you stop doing them

  • Constantly frustrated and irritable without a specific cause, or getting angry at something that would not usually bother you.

  • Feeling as if you’re not doing a good job, questioning your abilities and achievements

  • Being in a constant state of fatigue, not waking up feeling refreshed even after an appropriate amount of sleep

  • Inability to fully concentrate, forgetting simple things

  • Having changes in appetite, either losing it or finding yourself eating more than normal

  • Feeling anxious to the point that the anxiety stops you from doing your normal activities

  • Physical pain including chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches - which should all be consulted with your doctor)

  • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic about the future


What should I be doing if I have been signed off?


If you have been signed off work due to mental health conditions, you should be using the time to ease your symptoms and recover. Just as you would if you had the flu, you need to rest and do things which are going to benefit your health. This may be different for everybody. Everybody will have different ideas of what self-care means and consists of. Be sure to be productive within your time off, not regarding work, but with your emotional health. Visit your health professional, attend the recommended appointments to support your recovery (talk therapy, etc), take any prescribed medication, and practice techniques that allow you to relax, such as meditation or yoga. Being active about improving your mental health is the best thing you can do. A few suggestions for improving your mental wellbeing during your time off include slowing it down. Take a walk, but rather than rushing trying to reach your destination - slow it down. Take in your surroundings and don’t feel as if you have any destination or deadline to meet. You can also attempt to reduce some of the things that are causing stress, such as spending a day sorting out all of your finances or housework. Have a long bath, read a good book, go for a run, catch up with friends, do anything you want that is going to improve your emotional health. If you are working through therapy then agree on some goals that work for you with your therapists. If you are recovering on your own remember to have a little plan every day that includes social activities and exercise even if it is hard. Having modest goals here is perfectly fine and it is also important to know that if you are not able to carry out those activities on any given day, that is OK; just change your goal to something more achievable or simply try again the next day.


A few other things you can try to improve your mental wellbeing (in general, or to prepare for getting back to work) are as follows:


  • Value yourself. Try to avoid self-criticism, talk to yourself as you would talk to a friend or loved one. Being hard on yourself will only lead to further insecurity. Ensure you make time for your favourite hobbies, remember you are a priority.


  • Take care of yourself physically. By looking after your body, it will help you to look after your mind. It has been shown that a goods night sleep (7 to 8 hours), eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water and exercising are all good for your mental wellbeing. Looking after your body can help to lift your mood


  • Tap into your support network. Being around those who love and support you is a key component of recovery. There will be some among your loved ones that understand your condition better, It might be best to seek those people out during your time of recovery.


  • Learn how to deal with stress. Stress is part of life, and like it or not, everybody will experience stressful situations. If you can find something that de-stresses you, quickly, it will be helpful not only in everyday life, but also when you return back to work. You can try a variety of relaxation and mindfulness techniques, or you might find distraction techniques more helpful.


  • Identify your triggers. By noting down things that worsen your mood or frustrate you, you will begin to see a pattern in what triggers your condition. You can then make an educated decision regarding whether the trigger should be avoided or confronted. For example, if you feel particularly anxious when you are sitting next to an individual person at your work , decide whether you should try to confront the anxious thoughts or avoid the situations by moving seats. Your therapist can help you identify these triggers. This will be beneficial in both personal and work life, further allowing you to feel more in control.

Being signed off work for having problems with your mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. You would not feel guilty about taking time off for a migraine, so why should you feel guilty about taking time off for your mental health? Mental health matters. To read about your rights and what you can do regarding discrimination at work, under the Equality Act 2010, click here.

Sam GlassComment