Managing your career and mental illness

Two engineers talking in a railway yard

This Mental Health Awareness Week we look at how to maintain your career while experiencing mental illness.

Mental illness is not something that happens to an unlucky few. According to the 2016/17 New Zealand Health Survey, one in six of us experiences a mental illness such as depression. Some of us will suffer an ongoing mental illness, which can make managing day-to-day life even more challenging.

Keeping your career intact while experiencing mental illness isn’t easy. It requires careful planning and support. What you don’t need is to put yourself under pressure from fear of losing your job or losing sight of your career goals.

Here are some strategies to try to manage your career while you work towards getting well.

Know your rights

Attitudes to mental health at work are becoming more supportive. According to mental health campaigner Mike King, there has been "a real shift; a real sense of change happening…A lot of people are looking for positive solutions."

Awareness of your rights can help you ask for a supportive environment at work.

Rights for workers

Legally employers have to make "reasonable accommodations" for people with mental illnesses. The Mental Health Foundation suggests this could mean employers allowing you to:

  • work part time
  • take flexible sick leave
  • take time off to attend medical appointments
  • adjust your work environment to be more private or quiet
  • limit your workload.

Rights for tertiary students

Some universities give students up to eight years to complete their qualification. This can allow you to take time off to get well. Check with your course provider.

Learn about your illness

Keep a diary of your mood, actions and behaviour throughout the day. Talk to your doctor about how your mental illness typically affects a person. With this knowledge you can get a sense of how your illness might impact your work, and therefore create a good plan for work.

Make a plan

Work with your doctor, friend or mental health support worker to come up with a plan. Make it into a simple checklist that is easy to follow if your thoughts or focus get fuzzy. Discuss this plan with your employer. Your plan could include:

  • what hours you will work
  • taking time off for medical or counselling appointments
  • requesting extra sick leave, or using annual leave as sick leave
  • how to set up your working environment
  • strategies for when you’re feeling overwhelmed or panicked
  • how to communicate with your employer about what you need
  • how to manage your workload – what needs to be done and what can be let go
  • taking regular short breaks at work
  • what to say to your workmates about your illness
  • who you can check in with daily – a supportive person you can call or email.

Pace yourself

A good tip is to manage your time in 10-minute chunks. Take a mini-break between these chunks of time and move around to reduce anxiety. Most people can usually manage to focus for 20 minutes at a time, so 10 minutes is a good starting point while you are recovering from illness.

If you find you can’t focus for the whole 10 minutes it might be time to rethink. Is your task too hard for you right now? Do you need a longer break? Do you need to work fewer hours?

Get help

Plenty of organisations can support you to get well.


  • Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, ‘Return to Work: Returning to Work After Experiencing Mental Illness and Other Mental Health Issues’, 2007, (
  • Ministry of Health, ‘New Zealand Health Survey Annual Data Explorer’, December 2017, (
  • Pellegrino, N, ‘The Rise in Workplace Depression and Anxiety is Causing Job Culture to Change’, 25 September 2017, (

Updated 19 Jun 2019