For Abbi, 37, working as an advertising project manager at an agency in New York City meant long hours and high stress — "It was a work-hard, play-hard office," she says. After three years at the company, Abbi realized she needed to take time for her mental health. To top it all off, her father, who lived across the world in Australia, was battling pancreatic cancer; she desperately wanted to be there for him.
“I initially went [to my boss] thinking I’d only be allowed to take an extended break without pay,” she says. But after explaining her situation — and presenting a list of possible solutions — Abbi was granted a leave. “They were extremely supportive and sympathetic to my situation, and offered me short-term disability so I'd be somewhat financially covered.”
Though Abbi’s case is unique, the circumstances leading to her leave are not. Today, millennials are grappling with some serious challenges at work. According to recent statistics, three in ten millennials say they are “very often or always burned out,” and also experience “work-disrupting anxiety” twice as much as the national average. And it doesn’t stop there: Millennial depression is also on the rise.
For those facing climbing levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental-health issues, the ability to take time away from work to recover — even while forgoing pay — can seem appealing. But what exactly does such a leave entail? And is it a good idea?
Today, there are a few options for workers feeling the weight of a stressful job. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees who work for eligible employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specific medical or family reasons, such as pregnancy, adoption, or personal or family illness. But these options are not available to everyone, and those who wish to take time away from work for mental-health reasons may need to consult with their employer to design an appropriate plan of action.
In Abbi’s case, she was granted a leave of four months and ended up spending five with her mother and ailing father in Australia. After her father passed away, Abbi returned to her life and job in New York, though she regrets jumping back in so soon. “Coming back to reality was very tough,” she explains. “I went back to work straight away, thinking I owed my boss and should bury myself in work, which I now know was a mistake.”
Still, Abbi’s leave of absence proved to be a worthwhile decision. She says the experience changed her perceptions of work in a positive way. “I was so thankful I didn’t assume the worst of my employer and just quit my job before checking if they'd support me through a tough time,” she says. "After going through this, I have reprioritized my life, putting self-care, personal happiness [first] and not sweating the small stuff so much." However, not every leave of absence turns out this way.
When Salma*, 29, graduated from college, she found a job as a medical assistant at a large healthcare corporation in Chicago. She soon realized the culture wasn't exactly healthy. “Our boss wanted us to always come in early and leave late; it felt like we were constantly under watch,” Salma explains, adding the company had a severe turnover problem. “I didn’t want to be there.”
Salma realized she was experiencing burnout and approached her manager about it. “She was kind of supportive, but also asked who was going to do my work, since I was one of the main people running the show,” says Salma. Her boss reluctantly agreed to give her time off, but since the company was not eligible for FMLA, Salma ended up putting her vacation time toward her leave. “[The rest] was unpaid, but I thought my sanity was more important.”
Salma took three weeks away, traveling to her native Bangladesh, where she began building a healthcare nonprofit for women and children. After she returned, however, things felt "really tense." Back in the office, Salma's manager brought up the discussion they’d initially had when Salma first asked to go on leave, in which she shared with her boss that she might need to give notice if her experiences at work didn’t improve.
"She told me that she would gladly accept my resignation, [even though] I hadn’t brought up [the topic] since before I went on my leave,” Salma says, adding that the manager then asked her to write a statement of resignation. “I said okay, and that was that. That was my last day.” Still, though Salma’s leave ultimately resulted in the end of her job, she doesn’t regret taking time to re-center. “I am grateful for this experience," she says. "It made me realize what I don’t want in a boss and helped me to identify red flags."
Matthew Besser, an employment law attorney based in Cleveland, OH with a practice focused on employment discrimination, regularly deals with issues around medical leave. Besser encourages employees to figure out whether they are legally entitled to request a hiatus. In addition to FMLA and the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are many state laws, union contracts, and other employer policies that might protect a mental-health-related absence.
But Besser acknowledges that there are also risks that may come with taking a leave. "A response we see from employers more and more — especially for mental-health issues — is to spy on employees on leave," Besser explains. "It seems far-fetched, but courts have held [that] employers are allowed to spy on employees on FMLA leave and can fire them when they suspect the employee is misusing leave."
Given this reality, Jaime Klein, the Founder and President of Inspire HR, believes that a top-down culture shift is needed. “We need to shift mindsets so that a request for a stress leave for mental-health is treated like leave for physical health,” Klein says. “Leaders speaking openly about times that they or loved ones needed to take some time off to deal with stress can start to normalize stress leaves in office culture.”
Ultimately, today’s workers often face work cultures that can feel unsustainable. Because of this, it’s crucial that employees do their due diligence when seeking jobs, in order to avoid toxic workplaces that could cause burnout. Beyond this, candid conversations with bosses can also help to shift the mental-health narrative as it intersects with work.
No matter what happens, taking time away from an overtaxing situation is almost always a good idea. Even for Salma, who ended up losing her job, the need to care for herself in an unhealthy situation outweighed the negative consequences of staying in that position.
“After I left, I realized there were so many other options; I felt free — like I was able to breathe,” Salma says, noting she now feels fulfilled in her job as a campaign director at a maternal health nonprofit. “If a workplace doesn’t give attention to your mental-health, that’s a sign you need to get out.”
*Name has been changed