When I visit my orthopedic doctor, the focus of the visits remain solely on any physical pain, healing of the surgical area, use of prescription medications and the progress of my physical therapy. If we have a mental health condition, we see a psychiatrist; if we have a physical health condition, we see a specialist trained in treating that specific ailment. I’ve come to learn that physical and mental health are completely linked together.

For some perspective, let’s begin with a statement by the Canadian Mental Health Association, “The associations between mental and physical health are: 1. Poor mental health is a risk factor for chronic physical conditions. 2. People with serious mental health conditions are at high risk of experiencing chronic physical conditions. 3. People with chronic physical conditions are at a high risk of developing poor mental health.” 

Until I sustained a serious physical injury from a fall on Jan. 24 and with surgery on Feb. 10 to repair my knee, I rarely gave any consideration to the relationship of our mental and physical health. Since Feb. 15, I have kept a daily journal to record my thoughts during my health journey which is still in progress. If all goes well, I will be able to experience full mobility without a walking aid in a few more months. I would like to share some thoughts from my experience.

Immediately after my injury and before it was determined through an MRI that I would need surgery, I was experiencing constant pain with great uncertainty regarding a path forward. My surgery was delayed because of the prevalence of COVID hospitalizations at that time. Therefore, for 17 days my sleep on our sofa was poor, and my primary focus was to manage my pain at a tolerable level. During this period my eating was marginal, exercise was not possible, and my daily hygiene suffered. I think you can start to see where my physical health had a big impact on my mental health.

Surgery was a relief, because I knew that I would eventually be able to walk pain free in a normal manner again. During the discharge process, a new reality hit: I was told I would need to wear a full leg brace for at least 12 weeks, do physical therapy for potentially up to six months and I would need up to nine to 12 months to fully recover. I began to realize even more of my new reality when I returned home, my anesthesia wore off and my mobility required the use of a walker. 

I was not prepared for the impact my physical health journey would have on my mental health. During the loneliness of some evenings, with increased pain keeping me from sleep, a feeling of despair would develop. As my new reality set in, I had to make difficult choices in canceling many obligations I had committed to for February and March (including the FCA International Leadership Council), and I was uncertain regarding my pending commitments for April and May. It was very disappointing.

Since then, I have made steady progress in my physical and mental health. For my physical healing, I followed the instructions of my physician and physical therapists. Their words of encouragement have given me hope. Regarding my mental health, I cannot stress enough the importance of phone calls, texts and visits from family members and friends. Sometimes the little things we say and do in life can have larger impacts than we ever think or realize. For example, my whole day was made when a friend told me during a phone call that my voice sounded stronger. That comment told me that some progress was being made even though I was feeling otherwise.

So how does this all relate to employers and their employees? When one of your employees are off work due to a medical condition, do you or someone from the company maintain regular contact? As I said earlier, I have experienced the uplifting value of knowing that others care about my recovery and check in on a regular basis. I can’t emphasize enough the positive impact of hearing a voice instead of a text or email.

When you or one of your leaders makes that phone call, don’t try to minimize what the employee is feeling by referencing yourself. There is great power in listening and allowing the employee to tell their story. Actually, I’ve found it more hurtful to have someone tell me about their leg injuries rather than me being able to convey what I’m feeling. 

Once the employee returns to work, it would benefit both the employee and your company to regularly check in to see how they are adjusting. Remember: medical approval to return to work doesn’t necessarily mean someone is fully healed physically and mentally. There can also be a chance for a slight relapse. Furthermore, it takes time to get reacquainted with the normal workflow pace upon return from a significant period away from work. Often, a form of light duty can be utilized for everyone’s benefit.

I am absolutely convinced that my healing has progressed faster than my surgeon expected because I know that others have cared about me and encouraged me. At this point, I don’t want to let them down.

May is Mental Health Awareness month. I will talk more in May about self-care and your mental health.