Returning to work after a mental health difficulty

Professor Jim Lucey“Returning to work is a key part of mental health recovery.”

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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One in four of us will experience a mental health difficulty at some point in our lives. Despite the prevalence of these conditions, misinformation and stigma remain.

Deciding whether or not to disclose details of a mental health issue to employers and colleagues can be stressful for people returning to work. Professor Jim Lucey, Medical Director of St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in Trinity College, joined Damien O’Reilly to discuss the matter further. Professor Lucey began by establishing a simple expectation that should apply to everyone:

“Every person who is returning to work expects to be able to return to work with the same rights, accommodations and prospects as somebody else who perhaps hasn’t yet had a mental health difficulty.”

Equality legislation has established certain protections and ‘reasonable accommodations’ for people heading back into work after a period of absence due to their mental health. Some of these include allowing for a phased return to work, flexibility to attend an out-patient appointment or facilitating work from home a day or two a week, for example.

“I hope that most people would see fundamentally the human rights of this issue. Every human person has a right to privacy. So a person with a mental health difficulty has the same rights to privacy as anyone else. When you start from that point of view, everything else fits into place.”

Professor Lucey explained that legally there is no obligation on anyone to disclose a mental health difficulty to their employer. Equally, an employer is not entitled to ask whether an employee has ever had a mental illness of any kind. Damien asked if Professor Lucey would advise people returning to work after a mental health issue, to tell their bosses of their experience?

“My advice is that they should know their rights. They don’t have to and the employer can’t ask. So they need to understand the culture of the environment they’re working in.”

Damien wondered how employers could make the ‘accommodations’ a person is legally entitled to if they weren’t in possession of the details of their mental health issue. Professor Lucey maintains that the one is not necessary in order to deliver the other.

“Actually if you knew the diagnosis… it wouldn’t assist you at all in making the right accommodations. You’re the employer, you’re trying to assist somebody integrating into a work environment in a mentally healthy way. That simply means you’re trying to reduce the amount of stress… but you’re not trying to be the clinician. It’s none of your concern what the diagnosis actually is.”

Although people preparing themselves for a return to work can feel anxious about whether or not to disclose details of their illness, how their career progression might be effected or how their co-workers might react, Professor Lucey is adamant that these concerns don’t undermine the benefits of returning to work.

“Returning to work is a key part of mental health recovery. What recovery means is the capacity to live, work and love again… experience has shown, that is possible… so ruling out a return to work would be an appalling thing.”

You can listen to Professor Jim Lucey’s interview in full on Today with Seán O’Rourke here.

You can access the support information Professor Lucey references in the interview here.

© The Listener 2019

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