Schizophrenia and the Workplace

Even though schizophrenia is a very serious mental illness, many individuals with the disorder are able to work. While some may hold down challenging full-time jobs, others may feel better suited to part-time work or volunteer work. There are, however, challenges that go along with finding and / or holding down a job when one has schizophrenia.

Returning to work or school after initial diagnosis

Schizophrenia is usually not diagnosed until a person has his/her first psychotic break. Unfortunately, this episode is usually quite severe in terms of symptoms and often requires hospitalization. For males, onset usually occurs at some point in late adolescence into one’s early twenties. This is the time when they are finishing high school, starting or finishing college, or entering the work force.

The development of schizophrenia during this time of life thus creates a significant disruption in the person’s education and / or early career. Once stabilized, the person may attempt to return to work or school. This can be particularly challenging after being diagnosed with such a serious psychiatric illness. The effectiveness of initial treatment and whether or not the person continues to comply with treatment will play a major role in the success of returning to work or school. Also, if the job or school situation is stressful, that can make the schizophrenic individual more vulnerable to a relapse.

In females, schizophrenia doesn’t usually first develop until their mid-twenties to early thirties. They are often more likely finished with their education and / or a bit more established in the work force at this age. Returning to work can still be very challenging, for the same reasons as for males.

Potential barriers

Attempting to find new work after a diagnosis of schizophrenia can be particularly difficult. If a potential employer is aware of the person’s diagnosis, discrimination may hinder landing a job. Also, significant stigma is associated with any major mental illness.

But many schizophrenics may find themselves in a catch22 with regards to getting a job at any point in time after they’ve been diagnoses. If they’ve been receiving disability benefits, those will disappear once they start working. This can be a very precarious situation, particularly if they have a relapse and are unable to work for an extended period time. Suddenly there are no benefits and no income, which can be financially devastating. This situation makes some mentally ill individuals reluctant to pursue full-time work.

Pros and cons of working

With a serious illness like schizophrenia, there are both pros and cons of working. Often, being employed is beneficial to individuals with mental illness. Work provides important social connections, helps the person focus on things outside of his/her illness, improves self-esteem, and can improve one’s overall life quality. But for someone with schizophrenia, many jobs and work environments are too stressful and can increase the risk of a relapse.

Vocational training and / or psychotherapy

A possible solution for many individuals is to become involved in some sort of vocational training or rehabilitation program. They can learn new skills and also get help with learning or improving social skills. These programs can also help them function more fully and develop better thinking skills. Additionally, working with a psychotherapist can help with self-esteem issues, stress management, and making the best choices in terms of whether to work, what type of work, etc.

written by Dr. Cheryl Lane, PsyD