How to Handle Mental Illness At Work: Leave and Accommodations

When mental illness interferes with your ability to work or when work interferes with your ability to heal, it is time to consider taking time off or seeking workplace accommodations. In this article we explore some helpful tips to help you through this process, including accepting that you need helpmaking a list of your needs, and being upfront with your employer. For many, however, one of the most difficult challenges is being kind to yourself and giving yourself permission to prioritize your well-being over work.

Mental health in the workplace is a hot topic these days as awareness about psychiatric conditions grows and stigma is dismantled. Many companies are now seeking innovative ways of implementing employee wellness programs and policies to support those struggling with mental health disorders. But the actual practice of seeking time off work to seek mental health treatment or accommodations to promote your own well-being can be nerve-wracking.

Christine Stapleton knows all about that. “If you had to take off a couple of weeks because you had pneumonia, you would simply tell your boss that you could not work because you had pneumonia,” she writes.

But what do you say when your depression prevents you from working? How do you call in sick with depression? In my career I have had to take extended time off because of both pneumonia and depression. When I called in sick with pneumonia I never worried that my boss might think I was faking it or that my colleagues would think I was a wuss because I had pneumonia.

Christine’s concerns are common and, unfortunately, they are often valid. The sad truth is that the sigma of mental illness does persist in the workplace and disclosure of specifics is not always right for you. But what you may not realize is you don’t have to disclose that you have a mental health disorder. In her initial conversations with her own employer, Christine decided to keep information to a minimum:

Eight years ago, when I was off work for 8-weeks because of my depression and ended up in treatment to deal with behaviors that contributed to my depression, I didn’t know what to say. Actually, I didn’t say much at all besides “I can’t work” because I couldn’t talk much at all. I texted my boss and spoke briefly with the head of HR. I had been with the company nearly 20 years and no one questioned my loyalty or work ethic. I was told to get better—however much time I needed. I cannot tell you what a huge relief that was.

For Christine, time off was invaluable to her recovery; without it, it is likely that her suffering would have been needlessly prolonged. And her employer’s support was instrumental in giving her the emotional space to concentrate on healing without being distracted by unnecessary stress regarding work.

Unfortunately, many people are at a loss for how to handle mental illness in the workplace. The following are a few essential steps you can take toward putting your health first while maintaining professionalism:

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Accept that You Need Help

My own depressive episodes sneak up on me. In the beginning, I brush it off as a bad day. Then one bad day turns into two, and then it’s a week later, and I’m still having bad days. And they’re getting worse. And to be frank, I really don’t want to deal with it. My first instinct is to minimize and hope it goes away, in part because I hate admitting that I have limitations that interfere with my professional life. This, of course, is completely the wrong way to go about things; ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, and the longer I wait to admit that I need help, the bigger the hole is out of which I have to climb.

Accepting that you need help can be hard, especially if you are an overachiever who derives much of your identity and self-worth from your professional accomplishments. But this acceptance is critical; what threatens your ability to work and, more importantly, your quality of life isn’t treatment; it’s your illness, and there is no shame in that. Treatment is what will get you back to being able to perform the way you want.

Make a List

Consider what you need to improve your mental health. For some, the answer is simple: time off work to seek treatment. For many people whose psychiatric disturbance is severe enough to take leave from work, a residential mental health treatment program is the best option. The intensity of care allows you to make rapid gains toward recovery, alleviating suffering and helping you get better as soon as possible. Following treatment, you may want a graduated return to work to avoid sudden stress that can contribute to relapse.

For others, the answer may be both less drastic but more complex forms of short or long-term accommodation to stay in the workplace but create a healthier work environment or allow you to participate in self-care practices outside of work. This could include altered work hours, changing your workload, or even changing where you work. For example, I used to spend my days in a dark and very cold room while working in the television industry; it was dark because some operators found it easier to see our video monitors that way, and it was cold because we used industrial air conditioners to keep the equipment from overheating. For someone whose depressive episodes are very seasonal, spending all day in what was essentially simulated winter was not helpful, to say the least. But there was technically no reason I had to work in that room, so I requested to be moved to a warm, well-lit area that significantly improved both my mood and my ability to concentrate on my work. For you, it might be moving to a desk by a window or to a quieter area. What matters is that the solutions make sense for you.

Be Upfront

Talking to an employer about needing time off can be intimidating and make you feel vulnerable both emotionally and professionally. It can be tempting to put it off as long as possible and try to power through your illness to minimize disruption to your work life, but this is likely the wrong way to go. Instead of avoiding the issue, be upfront with your employer. That doesn’t mean disclosing the nature of your illness, but it does mean telling them what you need to support your well-being based on the list you made. By telling them sooner rather than later, you can start benefitting from any accommodations as quickly as possible, your employer can start making plans for how to handle your leave, and you can start getting better as soon as you can. This not only benefits you and your employer in the immediate term but can also be instrumental in preventing future professional disasters. As a writer for Forbes points out, “It may mean the difference between maintaining your professional reputation and having a breakdown at the office.”

Before you do this, it can be helpful to brush up on your labor rights knowledge; chances are that you have more rights than you think and you do not have to be scared of losing your job or experiencing professional repercussions for tending to your health due to protections such as the Family Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, even if you do not qualify for protected leave under federal regulations, you will likely find that your employer is supportive of accommodations or medical leave, particularly if you create an open dialogue in which you clearly express your needs.

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Be Kind To Yourself

In a culture where work is often prioritized above all else, and we are expected to be more connected to our employers than ever before, it can be difficult to shift your energy away from work and toward self-care. This shift, however, isn’t a failure. It’s not a character flaw or weakness or something shameful; it is essential to your ability to be a stable and healthy person. Instead of worrying about work, concentrate on your wellness. Surround yourself with people who give you strength and support. Seek out the best mental health treatment you can find. Give yourself time to find your footing. Learn how to say no. Because jobs, while often necessary and often fulfilling, are not what will sustain you through your darkest days; what will ultimately buoy you through the storms of mental illness and life in general is cultivating the ability to heal yourself and forging a strong network of friends, family, and mental health professionals to help you along the way.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring impulse control disorders and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to sustainable wellness.

Image Source: Pexels user Ben Rosett