Working with a Mental Illness

If you are mentally distressed, work can help you get better faster.

Every fifth person suffers from a mental illness at some point in their working life. This limits your abilities and your performance. But it doesn't have to be a reason to take a sick leave.

You don't have to be ashamed of your mental problems. They are an illness like heart problems or migraines. Fortunately, the taboo in society about talking about mental illness is gradually falling.

These mental health conditions exist

  • Anxiety disorder: Exaggerated fears of harmless things or situations.
  • Depression: depressed mood, reduced drive and activity, decreased pleasure and concentration.
  • Bipolar disorder: alternating between highly driven, euphoric and depressed mood.
  • Eating disorder: excessive preoccupation with food, weight control through starvation or vomiting.
  • Personality Disorder: conspicuous, inflexible behavior patterns and attitudes that often lead to social conflict.
  • Psychosis and schizophrenia: marked changes in perceptions, feelings, and thinking, loss of reality (e.g., delusions).
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Repetitive obsessive thoughts and actions such as compulsive washing or checking.

Source (in German): Leitfaden «Wie gehe ich mit psychisch belasteten Mitarbeitenden um

Work Promotes Health

It may be better for you to keep working - with some adjustments to your work. Because while work can make you sick, it can also make you healthy: "Gainful employment is a key psychological protective factor, and it's the lack of work that makes us sick in the first place," writes Workmed, the center for work and mental health, in its guide "How to deal with employees suffering from mental stress." Those affected would also recover more quickly if they had a job to return to.

"Gainful employment is a key psychological protective factor, and it's the lack of work that makes us sick in the first place."

Leitfaden «Wie gehe ich mit psychisch belasteten Mitarbeitenden um» Workmed

The following guidelines show you what you can do if you are mentally distressed. However, they do not replace medical advice. If you feel bad, do not hesitate one moment to see a doctor!

Guideline 1: Clarify your situation

Consider first:

  • Am I still up to my tasks, do I need relief or is it no longer possible?

If you need relief, ask yourself what it might look like:

  • Do I no longer want to perform certain tasks and activities?
  • Do I want to reduce my workload?
  • What support do I need?

Guideline 2: Inform superiors and work colleagues

We recommend that you talk to your boss early on and explain your situation to him or her.

You do not need to disclose the diagnosis to your superior. It is sufficient if you explain what limitations the illness entails.

Also inform your colleagues at work. This will prevent rumors and prevent them from thinking badly of you.

Guideline 3: Find ways to customize your work

Discuss with your boss what possibilities there are to adapt your work to your possibilities. Then try it out.

This is how a workplace can be adapted to the needs of mentally ill people

Adjustments can be made in a variety of areas:

  • Adjustments to working hours and tasks
  • Structuring of tasks
  • Increased individual work
  • Less planning tasks
  • No customer contact
  • Less responsibility
  • Quiet working environment
  • A reference person in the company to turn to

Source (in German): Leitfaden «Arbeiten mit psychischer Erkrankung»

If your health is severely limited and you cannot continue to work in your company, it may make sense for you to (temporarily) look for a job in the second labor market. In this market, there are jobs in a protected environment with lower requirements. You can find offers on (German or French).

Guideline 4: Get therapeutic support and professional coaching

Get therapeutic support from a specialist. She or he will also help you to communicate your situation properly to your employer.

Crisis situations are an opportunity to think about your professional situation. A job coach supports you in this process.

Guideline 5: Lean on the skills you still have

Due to a mental illness, abilities such as resilience, concentration or drive may be (temporarily) limited. However, many of your abilities and strengths are still present. Use them!

Ask yourself:

  • What can I still do well despite the illness?
  • What knowledge and experience can I bring to the table?

Guideline 6: Also use the skills you have acquired through the illness

By dealing with the illness, you will acquire new skills that can also be very valuable for your profession. Build on them! It may even open up new career opportunities for you.

Guideline 7: Don't get discouraged

Psychological impairments can persist for a long time. Don't let this discourage you! The chances of recovery are intact and usually things pick up steadily after a low point.

If you've been off work, don't wait until you're fully recovered to resume it. Work will help you get back into the swing of things and get better faster.

Guideline 8: Avoid stumbling blocks

Ask yourself the following questions to avoid stumbling blocks:

  • Do my assessments correspond to reality or are they wishful thinking?
  • Do I want too much too soon?
  • Am I putting too much pressure on myself?
  • Do I overestimate my abilities because I want to do particularly well?
  • Do I not trust myself to work (again) because I am afraid of failure?
  • Am I afraid that difficult professional situations from the past will repeat themselves?

Be honest with yourself when answering!

Guideline 9: Do good for yourself

You can take the following advice to heart at any time - it will help you even if you are healthy:

  • Give yourself some credit.
  • Allow feelings, talk about them.
  • Make mistakes or even fail. That's normal and you learn from it.
  • Don't be too hard on yourself.
  • Stay in touch with people you care about.
  • Give yourself rest, relaxation and sleep.
  • Eat healthy.
  • Do sports.
  • Cultivate your hobbies.

We wish you good luck!


Hansjörg Schmid

Hansjörg Schmid

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