People are curious. Office romances, organizational changes, either real or imagined, vie with hockey pools as major themes of work place conversations. High-up on this water-cool conversational list are sick leaves, especially an absence related to psychological problems.
Whether it be; “There but the grace of God, go I.” or “If he’s off with stress, then I should be at home as well.” – the imminent return to work of someone with a psychologically-based disability will be on the radar screens of all your co-workers.
Most of my clients who are on the verge of returning want nothing to do with this potential conversation.
They appropriately view their problems as their own business. This privacy is fully endorsed and promoted by all the major players in the disability arena from the patient’s doctor to the company’s HR department. In fact, in most North American work places, the confidentiality of an employee’s medical disability is legally enforced. When I managed a hospital department, all I knew was that the employee was of “ for medical reasons.”
Although confidentiality is good in the trusting relationship between client and professional, it often doesn’t fair well among employees in the trenches. Returning employees who don’t reference their leave are ignoring the elephant in the room. It can be done- but with a psychological cost that might not be worth the privacy benefit.
To prepare clients returning to work, I often suggest to clients that they develop a story, maybe several depending upon the audience, to explain their absence.
My suggestion is simple: a story needs a title, what do you call the thing that kept you away, and a plot, or an explanation for the thing’s occurrence.
What’s in a title? Lots! Calling your leave a “depression” denotes seriousness with shades of worry about relapses and reoccurrences. Calling it a “burnout” implies something more psychological and identifiable.
Next, the plot; in this area, clients and I find a balance between an appropriate level of self-disclosure and truth. In my opinion, most co-workers don’t need to know that you and your spouse were fighting over the family finances or that your adolescent child has a serious drug problem. Instead, relating your absence to typical job stressors such as the lack of clarity in your work responsibilities might be a suitable plot-line for co-workers, but then again, perhaps not for your supervisor.
In my experience, storylines don’t have to be elaborate, sometimes two or three words do the trick. Saying something like: “ I felt like I had to accomplish absolutely everything…” can suffice.
Also, the stories don’t have to be recanted for everyone, there can be different versions for different people and sometimes, the stories we create in my office just stay there. Their creation is a kind of safety jacket if you will for the potential coworker encounter.
However, I find that most clients returning to work make a less stressful transition when they have planned for the inevitable: “where have you been?”