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Six ways to ease yourself back into work after an illness

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Young tired working woman at work. Photo: Getty Creative

Taking time off work because of illness can be unavoidable, and it is becoming increasingly common.

Around 1.4 million fit notes were issued in a three-month period in 2017, up from nearly 75,000 the previous year, according to a recent NHS report. The documents are issued by GPs, giving workers and employers their assessment of how a patient’s health affects their ability to work.

The number of fit notes issued for mental health conditions have been gradually rising, with a 14% rise in fit notes relating to anxiety and stress in recent years.

If you’ve been signed off work for a longer period of time, it can be difficult to ease yourself back into work. It can take time for your health to fully recover, even if you’re back at work—so it is important to take things slowly to get yourself back on track.

Be open with your manager

“After a period of illness, it’s important to have a conversation with your manager, and ask for clarity about priority tasks, so you can focus your energy most effectively,” says Felicity Dwyer, a Life Coach Directory member.

“You might also consider whether adjustments such as a change to your working pattern would help you, either in the short term or longer term, depending on the nature of your illness.”

If you are worried about returning to work, you could try asking for a phased return with fewer responsibilities or hours. You could gradually reintroduce these as you get accustomed to the working day once again.

“If you’ve worked for your employer for more than 26 weeks, you have the right to request flexible working. The request must be in writing and you can find more information on the government’s website.

READ MORE: How to speak up in meetings when you have anxiety

Set reasonable goals

It’s easy to want to jump straight back into work after time off and try to return to the level you worked at beforehand, but this isn’t always helpful.

“Going back to work after time off can feel overwhelming. You may be returning to a flowing in-tray, or adjusting to changes in the workplace,” Dwyers says. “Most of us are motivated by a sense of achievement so make sure you set some goals where achievement is within your control.

“A simple way to do this is to set yourself the goal of doing your best each day, and then acknowledge your success in meeting that goal.”

Balance negative thoughts

It can be easy to let negative thoughts interrupt your day, which can impact confidence and self-esteem and make it harder to get back into the flow of work.

“Feelings of overwhelm are often accompanied or triggered by negative self-talk,” Dwyer says. “If you catch yourself saying things like ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I should be doing better’, then allow yourself to just notice that you are saying these phrases, and that they aren’t necessarily true.”

“Once you get enough distance to notice a negative thought, and recognise it’s only a thought, you’ll often find the thought will drift away and allow you to refocus on the task at hand.”

Recognise your triggers

If you’ve been off sick due to a mental health problem, it can be important to recognise any triggers in the workplace that pose a risk to your wellbeing.

Writing down how you feel can help you keep note of any potential problems - and give you time to work out how to counteract them. If meetings cause you stress or anxiety, tips such as planning ahead, writing down notes and engaging in calming activities before or after can help.

It’s also important to keep check of your health and wellbeing and to ensure you stick to regularly doctor appointments, even if you’re busy at work.

READ MORE: How to make the most of your commute to work

Stay in the moment

Mindfulness can help tackle negative thoughts or feelings of anxiety, particularly if you feel like you’ve been thrown into the deep end at work.

“If you find yourself feeling anxious or noticing a lot of negative thoughts, an effective strategy is to refocus your attention on the present moment,” Dwyer explains. “A simple method is to bring your attention to your breath. It can help to breathe consciously from your lower belly (rather than your chest), and to make your outbreath longer than your in-breath.

“When you notice you're feeling overwhelmed, try taking a few minutes to consciously breathe in to a count of five, and out to a count of eight. This practice will physically calm your nervous system and help to take your mind off anxieties.”

Reach out for support

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try contacting relevant organisations or charities for support or advice. If you’re struggling with anxiety or feelings of stress or low mood, Anxiety UK or Mind offers information as well as help from trained professionals.

The Money Advice Service offers practical job advice and support for people who have developed a health condition, and Citizens Advice offers confidential advice online, over the phone, and in person, for free.

READ MORE: How sleep deprivation damages our work and the wider economy