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Does mental health sick leave make us sicker?

Whilst sick leave for mental health struggles can be a much-needed avenue for many, one should also be cognizant of the benefits of surrounding one’s self with professional communities, writes David Westgate.

Please believe me when I say your boss did not slip me a few bucks to write this article. Honest. It’s just that for many of us experiencing a mental illness, work can be a better environment than home.

Don’t get me wrong, I know from experience that there will be days when you cannot drag yourself out of bed, let alone shower, walk to the bus stop and make your way to your office. Such effort can be the equivalent of scaling Mt Everest – without a Sherpa.

But whenever we can, we should make that climb. One reason is that it takes great discipline to go to work when every fibre of us is screaming, LEAVE ME ALONE. LET ME HIDE UNDER THIS DOONA! And great discipline is something we need in abundance to beat poor mental health.

Like those smug, sweaty people you see leaving gyms, you too get a sense of achievement having made it to work. You’ve reassured yourself you’re still in control.

By comparison, staying under the doona will eventually lead you to the land of hopelessness, where the sun rarely shines and negative thoughts so easily become facts. Your objectivity has gone walkabout and suddenly it’s all, “I am worthless. I am hopeless.”

And the longer you stay home, the harder it is to return to reality.

But struggle through your office door and suddenly you’re confronted with colleagues you have to be polite to, and social norms you have to abide with – whether you want to or not. Conversations – no matter how difficult – mean less time for dark thoughts. Sitting through a meeting – no matter how tedious – beats sitting on the lounge watching Ellen. And laughing at your boss’s jokes – no matter how lame – beats having a good cry at home.

Better still, time passes more quickly at work and, since you haven’t had the luxury of dozing off whenever you want to, you might just get a better sleep that night.

In short, work gives your life meaning and focus, which otherwise may be missing when your mind is melting like a marshmallow.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not being unsympathetic. I know from 40 years of experience that mental illness and work aren’t the best of bedfellows. But for me, work could be a sanctuary – a place that could save me from myself when things got bad. Maybe it could be for you too.

David Westgate is a Mental Health First Aid trainer, speaker for the Black Dog Institute, creator of the workplace program Club 20, and bipolar 1.

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