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Mental Health Setbacks: A Hidden Side Effect of Chronic Health Conditions

One of your employees, Fred, is now back at work — two months after having a heart attack.

You’re thrilled that Fred is healthy and planning on returning to work. You’ve reached out to ensure his return is successful by talking with him about how he is feeling, discussing his medical restrictions or limitations, and identifying any temporary or modified job restrictions that may be needed because of his condition.

But then, after just a few weeks back at work, Fred’s manager notices he has been sluggish. He is anxious and tired, and has spent a lot of time in the break room. The manager has asked him how he’s doing, and Fred’s answers have uncovered another health condition: depression.

Comorbidity: It Takes Two

Mental health diagnoses, such as depression, can often occur after the personal trauma of a serious health problem. In the medical field, this is called comorbidity, and points to when a condition is present along with a primary condition.

As a mental health consultant, I often help claimants who have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or even post-traumatic stress disorder. After reviewing the employee’s file, we often find out that depression is the underlying issue that was triggered by a larger medical problem, or health scare, such as a cancer, surgery or musculoskeletal condition.

Unexpected Medical Issues Can Create Additional Health Problems

To understand why, consider Fred’s journey back to work. Prior to his heart attack, he was relatively healthy. But then, unexpectedly, he suffered a significant setback that resulted in a serious health issue, and potentially emergency surgery. He then was off work for an extended period of time — something that has never happened to him previously — part of which was spent lying in a hospital bed. Not only that, he spent time at home resting and recovering, and potentially questioning if he’d ever get back to “normal” again.

And that could just be the tip of the iceberg. Other issues might also be occurring simultaneously: sick family members, hospital bills accumulating on top of existing financial issues — a whole host of issues that could spiral into a depressive episode.

While Fred may physically be able to return to work, he’s struggling. His depression causes him to be absent from work, or he exhibits signs of presenteeism on the days he does make it in.

Setbacks Can Occur

I’ve shared a few tips on how to help employees with depression in a previous blog post. But if this type of situation occurs with your employees — it’s important to ensure that your management team is aware that this type of setback could happen.

If an employee returns to work after a prolonged illness, don’t just focus on the physical side of their recovery. Keep an eye on their performance and attendance. I also always recommend that employers remind their employees of how valuable EAP assistance can be in returning to work — especially in treating mental health conditions.

Recognizing that setbacks could occur — physically, mentally or otherwise — is an important component of helping your employees return to work after a significant health issue. Helping direct them to the proper assistance can help stem a mental health condition from becoming worse, or helping your employees find the valuable help they need to recover.


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