Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences
Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation

Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences
Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation

The Possibility of Work

What might I ask myself when considering the possibility of work?

How do I figure out if work is possible for me?

Figuring out if work is possible for you is part of deciding about your “readiness” for work.  We sometimes think of these as the Motivational Foundations for working, i.e, the steady ground from which we may “make the leap” to work. The following questions will look at 4 Beliefs related to Thinking about Work.

These 4 Beliefs are adapted from Motivational Foundations for Vocational Recovery from Vocational Peer Support (Nicolellis & Legere, 2015):

Belief 1: Do I think work is possible for me?
Belief 2: Do I want work in my life?
Belief 3: Do I think working will be worth it to me?
Belief 4: Do I believe I can make work happen in my life?

As you go through the following questions, remember that this section is not the only important one.  For example, your need for a change, how much support you have, and how much you know about yourself may make a difference in your decision process. Take a look at other sections that interest you.

Belief 1:  Do I think work is possible for me?

Considering whether work is possible for you may be a matter of belief and attitude about your capacity to recover. It may be that the more you believe that work is possible, or “in the cards” for you, it is more likely that you will work. Do you, as Emily Dickinson said, “…dwell in possibility…”?

To think about whether you think that work is possible for you, consider:

  • Do you believe that it is possible for you to work?
  • Do you foresee work in your own life?
  • To what extent do you think that work is “in the cards” for you?
  • Do you think your belief that work is possible is high, medium, or low?

Belief 2: Do I want work in my life?

Wanting work in your life is akin to seeing work as desirable. Finding work desirable means that you like, or want, work. The question here is, do you want to have a work life?

To explore this question, ask yourself the following questions, and estimate for yourself how desirable work is for you.

  • Do I think I want work in my life?
  • Do I want to have a workplace, coworkers, a boss?
  • Do I want to get a paycheck?
  • Do I want to have work tasks to do?
  • Do I like the idea of a job?
  • Do I think my desire for work is high, medium, or low?

Belief 3:  Do I think I can do it?

The question of “Do I think I can do it?” is sometimes called, “self-efficacy.”  Self-efficacy, when we talk about work, can be thought of as whether you believe that you can make a vocational change happen in your life.  The question is not necessarily about whether others believe that you can, but the extent to which you believe that you can.  As Henry Ford reportedly said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”

To explore this Belief, ask yourself the following questions, and estimate for yourself the extent to which you think you can make work happen in your own life.

  • Do I have experience with making vocational changes happen?
  • Do I believe I have what it takes to make a vocational change happen?
  • To what extent do I believe I have what it takes to take the necessary steps toward working?

Belief 4: Do I think it’s worth it to me?

One of the questions to ask yourself when considering work is whether making this change is going to worth it to you or not. Deciding whether making a work change will be worth it or not is based on the risks and benefits of making this change. (Nicolellis & Legere, 2015; Cohen, Farkas, et. al. 2000).

What are Benefits of making a change?

A benefit is something that you would gain, such as money, status, a meaningful role, or having something to do during the day.

What are Risks of making a change?

Risks relate to what you might lose as a result of working.  It may be something you see as negative, like the “cons” of “pros and cons.”  Examples are different for every person, but may include losing free time, losing benefits, or concerns about having a boss or deadlines.

To explore this Belief, consider the following questions, and estimate for yourself the extent to which you think it’s worth it to you to move toward working now.

  • What do I think the benefits of working are for me?
  • What do I think the risks of working are going to be for me?
  • Do I think the benefits to me outweigh the risks?
  • Do I think the risks outweigh the benefits?

For more on Thinking about the Possibility of Work, see these resources: Self-Directed Psychiatric Rehabilitation Activities, McNamara, et. al., 2011. Vocational Peer Support Trainee Handbook and Toolkit, Nicolellis,, 2015. Gifts and Possibilities, Bissonette (video).

What role can work play in our lives?

Work can play many roles in our lives. Work means different things to different people, depending on culture, beliefs, preferences, and opportunity.  For many of us, work is a means to get by and pay our bills.  For some of us, work is a calling or a means to a spiritual mandate or fulfillment.  For others, work is a meaningful activity that adds purpose to our lives.  Work may fill any, or all of these descriptions for you and more.

How would you describe work and its meaning to you? Beyond meaning, purpose, and income, work can offer us a valued role in society.  There is much work to do in any community, and taking part in the workforce in some capacity can allow us to contribute to the society we live in. That we contribute, or perhaps, how we contribute, can offer us a role that is valued by others. Think about the first question that is often asked at parties,  “So, what do you do?”  Having a role, whatever that is, may offer us status, even validation, as well as a sense of full citizenship.

How is work supportive of recovery?

We know that people who have experienced what is called mental illnesses can and do recover. Even people with diagnoses who were once considered the most difficult have been shown, across the globe, to have greater recovery rates than ever before expected (Davidson, Harding & Spaniol, 2006). People labeled with psychiatric diagnoses have been telling their stories of recovery for many years.

Just a few examples are listed below, with stories in different formats.

Voices of Recovery (book)
Experience of Recovery (book)
Video Stories of Vocational Recovery (website)

In recent decades, we have seen a rise of research, stories, and activism that speak to the importance of work in recovery.

National Empowerment Center Recovery Stories (website)
Pat Deegan: Recovery from Mental Disorders (video)
Becoming Doctor Deegan, Hogg Foundation (video)

Is work possible for people with mental illness?

Many people who have experienced serious psychiatric symptoms and related treatments wonder if work is possible for them. Work is not only possible for most, if not all, people with psychiatric disabilities, but work can support recovery and can hold an important role in our lives.  As Paolo DelVecchio has said, “Work provides meaning in life and a life of meaning.” (Del Vecchio, SAMHSA). Decades of research show that people who have been diagnosed with psychiatric conditions can and do have productive lives in communities of their choice.  Going all the way back to the late 1800’s, actually, as in the Worcester State Hospital study, researchers found that great numbers of people were in recovery and lived well in their communities for the rest of their lives once released from the hospital.

People who have experienced mental illnesses have held positions of all kinds and at all levels, from the Presidency of the United States, i.e., President Abraham Lincoln, who was said to experience depression or bipolar disorder; to high profile acting positions, i.e. Carrie Fisher (who played Princess Leia); to everyday positions at all levels, including professional and managerial careers. Much research and development has occurred in recent decades to understand how to support people to have, and be successful in, employment.

Efforts to understand and spread the word about recovery include The President’s New Freedom Commission, and to develop employment service models that can effectively support people in work (Choose-Get-Keep Model, Supported Employment, Employment Intervention Demonstration Program study). We are still learning about how to best support people in work, and still have far to go. But have no doubt – people diagnosed with psychiatric conditions can and do work.

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Where am I in my employment journey?