EnjoyWellness

How To Ask For Mental Health Leave

Lindsay Tigar  |  May 11, 2022

It can be a tough conversation, but your health is the most important thing. Here’s how to get the time and space that you need.

Even pre-pandemic The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the economic burden of mental health issues on the American economy to be $210 billion per year. Nearly half was related to absenteeism at work, while 37% percent was due to something called “presenteeism” where you appear to be present, but you’re suffering from a lack of productivity.  

So, if you feel like a few weeks or a few months is just what you need to recover, it may be time to ask for mental health leave. Experts weigh in on how to broach the conversation. 

Understand your rights 

Depending on your employment status, you may be eligible to benefit from the Family and Medical Leave Act. Psychotherapist Sarah Dumoff, LCSW, says any professional who has been employed for at least the last year and who has worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months can apply for legal protection for your mental health leave. What does this mean? Dumoff says once you request a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation for your mental health condition, your employer is obligated to engage in a cooperative dialogue. Typically, your human resources department can walk you through the application process and help you understand the offerings. 

Dr. Seide also reminds professionals it’s not necessary to disclose personal information to be able to benefit from a medical leave. If you are questioned, though, she suggests turning to The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects your medical information. “It is generally respected, so you and your doctor are not obligated to provide specifics. In this instance, you get documentation that you have a medical issue, and your employer doesn’t have to know if it was treatment for an addiction or a broken ankle,” she adds.

Explain how your work is impacted

The purpose of asking for a mental health leave from work should be directly connected to your ability to perform the responsibilities of your gig. Dr. Seide says that while some disabilities are apparent, like having an active job and breaking your leg, others, like depression, aren’t always so clear. When someone feels as if they are mentally drowning, they may experience mental fogginess, extreme fatigue, insomnia, and performance anxiety. All of these together can make doing normal job functions that much more of an uphill battle. “The myth is that depression is just sadness, and it is so much more than that. It is an entire constellation of symptoms which can make functioning adequately at your workplace an impossibility,” Dr. Seide asks.

Olivia Curtis, a wellness specialist at G&A Partners, suggests illustrating, with examples, how your productivity is suffering, along with how a break will help you to recover. “It never hurts to start a conversation regarding your current circumstances and where you stand mentally and emotionally,” she continues. “Employees should have an open line of communication with their manager or HR team. This will allow employees to express their needs and the difficulties they are experiencing before symptoms and effects get too severe.” 

But if you don’t share how you are feeling, your employer won’t understand why you need a break. While it may be scary to be vulnerable, Curtis says managers and HR teams will benefit significantly from your candidness. One way to approach it could be: “My workload has increased substantially due to the current circumstances, and I find that it is affecting my ability to complete each task to the best of my ability. I’m feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by tight deadlines and a long to-do list. I want to explore taking mental leave.” 

Listen and learn 

Though sabbaticals are becoming more common (especially with large employers like Facebook now requiring employees to take one every five years) they can still be unchartered territory for many leaders. That’s why Dr. Seide suggests approaching the conversation as a teachable moment. “There are so many misconceptions that surround mental illness. As much as you feel comfortable, help your employers understand your experience,” she urges. “Explain how it has affected your ability to concentrate and perform cognitive tasks, be enthusiastic about your work, or how anxiety is sabotaging your performance. The only way out of the stigma surrounding mental illness is conversation and education.”

Be creative and flexible

If you know your company is already short-staffed and may not have flexible FMLA policies, consider other options that could be beneficial. Having a plethora of choices on the table for your boss to navigate makes it easier for him or her to understand your situation and needs. Dumoff says while your boss may not agree with all of your requests, they may be open to a collaborative discussion to find a creative solution that’s somewhere in the middle. This might be a four-day workweek, a shortened workday, or an alternating work schedule. “You know yourself best if you know that you prefer to work early in the morning to decompress in the afternoon without causing major sleep disturbances, ask for a work schedule change,” she adds.

Advocate for yourself

Remember: you will always be your best advocate. Put yourself first. Only you know what will help you be a healthier, happier you (and thus, a better, more productive employee.) “Your company has invested a great deal of time, money, and training to aid in your professional development and your overall contribution to the company,” Dumoff reminds. “You are an asset. And so, you may be surprised to see your company’s willingness to take care of your wellbeing.”

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