How To Take Time Off From Work For Your Mental Health (2022)

In the spring of 2018, my mental and physical health had deteriorated to a point where I felt unable to function. I wasn’t just dealing with a cold or a bad few weeks. Stress had ravaged my mind and body, creating a snowball effect that led to mental health problems including a panic disorder, major depression and generalized anxiety. And all of that contributed to flare-ups of chronic illness and a completely compromised immune system. So, I took a medical disability leave and it changed my life.

Many people in corporate environments don’t know about this option, despite the fact that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. I didn’t. There’s a huge stigma when it comes to addressing mental health in the workplace. There’s a valid fear of facing repercussions or discrimination at your job based on your mental health status.

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But as more people reach breaking points, they may not have another option. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the number of workers taking mental health leave appeared to be on the rise, according to Angella Lugioyo, a human resources executive and expert in California. Lugioyo said she has seen an uptick in mental health disability cases in recent years, with most of it being “stress and anxiety related.”

Stacy Cohen, a double board-certified psychiatrist at The Moment in Los Angeles, has seen this with clients in the clinical setting as well. “In the past few years, I’ve had a vast increase in the number of patients pursuing medical disability leave for more general mental health issues, with work-related stress being a major contributing factor,” she said.

And the need for leave may only increase: Experts predict mental health issues ― and the need to address them ― will continue to rise as the year goes on. The stresses of COVID-19, police brutality and racism are combining to produce a unique mental health crisis. Texts to one federal emergency hotline increased by 1,000% in April 2020 (over April 2019), and prescriptions for anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication have risen by roughly 10%.

Mental and emotional distress can have dangerous consequences if not addressed properly. That makes it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself ― especially if you have the resources to do so.

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Here’s how to determine if you need mental health leave, what type of leave to take, how to obtain leave and how to make the most of your recovery time.

How To Take Time Off From Work For Your Mental Health (1)

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Should You Take Leave?

The decision of whether to take a leave of absence is ultimately a personal choice that you have to sort through. This likely should be done with the help of a therapist or physician since you’ll need them if you do decide to go on leave (more on that in a moment).

(Video) Can I Take Time Off From Work? | Kati Morton

But first of all, don’t feel wrong or bad for considering it.

“I would 100% advise anyone who might not be in the healthiest place — and they know they need help with their mental health — to take time away from work,” said Nina Westbrook, a psychotherapist and keynote speaker.

Unfortunately, this is not now an option for everybody. “There are those who don’t have the opportunity to take time off work ― particularly single-parent households or people who work for a business that doesn’t provide that type of support,” Westbrook said.

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That’s why there need to be more mental health resources available, Westbrook added, both in the workplace and outside it.

If you are in a position to potentially take time off, one initial assessment should be whether you’re facing work burnout or a medical condition that’s affecting your ability to perform on the job.

W. Nate Upshaw, a board-certified psychiatrist and medical director at NeuroSpa TMS, explained that when work-specific burnout is the problem, there might be ways to fix that without taking a leave. For example, he said, “Can they talk with their boss? Can they transfer to a different department? Is there a way they can change either the situation or their perspective?”

Upshaw added that although “burnout is considered a legitimate justification for medical leave in some countries,” that’s not how it works in the United States. Yet burnout, if left unchecked, “can lead to symptoms that do qualify as a medical condition such as an anxiety disorder, or mood disorder such as depression,” he said.

“I always emphasize to people this is not a moral failing. This is a medical issue that can get better.”

- W. Nate Upshaw, a board-certified psychiatrist

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Symptoms that may be signs of a mental health condition include panic attacks, chronic rumination or worry, overwhelming sadness or anger, changes in sleep, changes in appetite and mood swings.

“If you’re stressed and anxious at work and begin to also feel stressed and anxious at home, then you may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder,” Upshaw said. “If you’re spending the majority of your time focusing on your mental health and you’re not getting better, it’s time to consider taking a medical leave. I always emphasize to people this is not a moral failing. This is a medical issue that can get better.”

What Types Of Leave Are Available?

There are several types of leave, depending on where you live and work.

“The U.S., unfortunately, makes leave of absence confusing, as each state is unique,” Lugioyo said.

(Video) How to take mental health leave from work

On top of what your state requires, your employer may provide an additional program or means of support. “Some companies may have additional leave an employee can leverage as part of the benefit package,” she said. This might include sabbaticals or vacation time.

Start with the nationwide leave option provided under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which, among other things, allows employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work for serious medical conditions, all while maintaining health benefits (so you keep your work-provided health insurance).

The main qualifiers are that you must have worked for your employer for at least 12 months and at least 1,250 hours, and that you must work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.

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The FMLA entitles you to unpaid leave regardless of which state you work in. California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington state, and Washington, D.C., have paid programs as well, so you can receive at least a portion of your pay while on leave. If you’re on unpaid leave in any of the other states, you may be able to collect unemployment benefits, although this is not required under federal law.

From there, look into whether your leave would be covered by short-term or long-term disability insurance, which may be provided by your employer. This is usually the point where things become a logistical nightmare in most companies.

“Some workplaces have great HR departments and have learned how to streamline the process. Some are not experienced at it, and the paperwork and process can be a headache,” Cohen said.

Ask the human resources office about your options. They can outline if you have a company leave policy, if you should go forward under the FMLA or if there’s another route you can take, Lugioyo said.

Has Any of This Changed With COVID-19?

According to Lugioyo, it’s not supposed to change. If it’s still business as usual with your company, they should be able to provide you with information on leave options and how best to take care of your mental health.

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“Regardless of where our country and world is — pandemic or otherwise — an organization should be thoughtful and recognize the current employee experience,” Lugioyo said. “This should result in proactive communications from the leadership team, with an acknowledgment of the current climate and organizational resources that could support employees and their families, including employee assistance programs and disability information.”

“Regardless of where our country and world is — pandemic or otherwise — an organization should be thoughtful and recognize the current employee experience.”

- Angella Lugioyo, a human resources executive

(Video) Tips on Taking Time Off for Mental Health

Lugioyo urged those in management positions to make sure they’re providing this level of care for their workers.

“Employees need transparent communication and trust that their organization is well-informed about the current social climate and how it could potentially impact their employees,” she said.

How Do You Get Started On Taking Leave?

There are a few steps you must take if you think you need a medical leave from your job.

First, see a mental health care provider if you haven’t already.

If you’re feeling like you’re more than just a little off, it’s time to confer with a mental health specialist, said Juan Santos, a licensed professional counselor and certified rehabilitation counselor in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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Santos said that your doctor will typically administer tests (which, in my case, were sometimes as simple as filling out a form) or ask questions to evaluate the severity of your condition. “The questions the clinician asks can be connected to work, ability to complete activities of daily living, and overall functioning of the person,” he noted.

They may also dig a bit deeper into your family history and your past medical history. From there, Santos said, the clinician will evaluate if you meet the criteria for an official mental health disorder diagnosis. They’ll also help you manage the condition on an ongoing basis.

Figure out how much time you may need off.

Only you and your doctor know your case well. Some people may just need a few weeks; some may need the full three months offered under the FMLA.

Upshaw offered one example: “I met with a patient who came in experiencing burnout and found that underlying depression was the source of his issue. We completed the FMLA paperwork for him, he began receiving [treatment], and he was better and able to go back to work in a few weeks.”

(Note that if you still don’t feel fit to return to work at the end of your leave, you may be let go from your job or you may choose to resign. At that point, some states will allow you to collect unemployment as you’ve left work for medical reasons.)

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Finally, meet with your HR department about those leave options.

This process will vary from state to state, but HR should be equipped to explain your specific options and any particular landmines to avoid. “Always inquire about the state and company paid options,” Lugioyo said.

With the help of the HR team, you’ll fill out forms — sometimes a lot of forms — get a doctor’s sign-off, send the forms into the state and eventually take your leave. Then, it’s up to you and your health care team to focus on your healing.

(Video) Workplace Mental Health - all you need to know (for now) | Tom Oxley | TEDxNorwichED

How To Take Time Off From Work For Your Mental Health (2)

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What Should You Do During Your Time Off?

Melinda Ring, executive director of Northwestern Medicine’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, suggests creating a plan to make sure you get the most out of your leave.

“I recommend setting up a daily and weekly schedule of goals and appointments to help someone keep on track without getting overwhelmed, and also identify a support team that includes both health professionals and a personal network,” Ring said.

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This may be somewhat easier during a time of social distancing and quarantine, since you may have fewer distractions from outside obligations and more time to focus on you-time and healing.

Your plan should include healthy lifestyle habits, like eating regular meals, exercising and seeing a mental health professional consistently. Keep in mind that this isn’t a vacation; it’s a necessary time for you to prioritize your well-being and make radical changes in order to get better.

Cohen said that sometimes “patients will struggle with wishing they did something cool or interesting during this time, when they really need rest and therapeutic activities like yoga, psychotherapy, journaling and sleep.”

Whatever you do, don’t let outside opinions ― or sometimes even your own ― undermine your commitment to getting your mental health back on track.

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(Video) Returning from a Mental Health Leave

FAQs

How do you explain time off for mental health? ›

When making your appointment, let your HR officer know what you want to talk about by saying something along the lines of, “I'd like to request leave for a health condition.” Bring your documentation to your appointment and be prepared to answer questions about how stress has affected your health and work performance.

How do I ask for time off work for mental health? ›

Chances are, your company doesn't need to know that you're taking time off for mental health. You simply request the time off you need as “sick leave.” Your employer, due to medical health information protection laws, shouldn't need to know the specific issue.

How do I tell my boss I need time off for mental health? ›

Talking about your mental health doesn't need to be scary or over-complicated, you can start the conversation by simply saying, “I need to get something off my chest” or “I need to talk, do you have time to listen?” Just remember to tell your boss only what is necessary.

What to do if you can't work because of mental health? ›

If you are unable to work because of a mental health condition or any other disability, there are some options for financial support.
...
These include disability insurance and disability payments through Social Security.
  1. Disability insurance. ...
  2. Social Security Income (SSI). ...
  3. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
Feb 17, 2021

How do you explain leaving a job for mental health reasons? ›

You might say, "If you don't mind, it was a personal illness that's healed and won't be a problem in the future" or "I'd prefer to keep it personal since it's completely healed and won't be an issue in any jobs I hold in the future."

How do I get time off work for stress and anxiety? ›

Go to your Human Resources department and let them know you would like to take an FMLA-approved absence for stress leave. They will provide you with the necessary paperwork that you must take to your doctor.

How do I explain stress leaving my job? ›

It's starting to impact my health, and as such, I must tender my resignation. As you know, this is an extremely high-stress environment. Despite my very best efforts, I am not able to continue with this degree of elevated anxiety any longer. As such, I'm giving you my two weeks notice.

Can you be fired for missing work due to mental illness? ›

Can someone be fired for missing work due to mental illness? Normal stress is not considered a mental disability and workers who don't show up for work for that reason can be disciplined — although termination may be excessive if the employer hasn't tried other, less serious disciplinary measures first.

What do you say when you call in sick for mental health? ›

Cyrus recommends keeping it short: "'I'm not feeling well today and would like to call in sick' — because feeling emotionally sick counts. Or, 'I'm unable to come in due to personal reasons. '"

What are my mental health rights at work? ›

Employers cannot discriminate against any employee (or candidate) with a mental health illness that classifies as a disability. Employers must carry out a risk assessment for stress at work, and take action based on their findings.

Should I quit my job if it is affecting my mental health? ›

While quitting a job that leaves your mental health in a poor state may sound like a clear-cut decision, it's far from it. Financial and social considerations are critical to consider, along with the commitment—warranted or not—many people feel towards their employer.

How do you tell your boss you're overwhelmed? ›

How to tell your boss your work is overwhelming
  1. Schedule a meeting with your boss. ...
  2. Prepare what you are going to say. ...
  3. Provide specific examples. ...
  4. Focus on your work experience. ...
  5. Offer thoughtful solutions. ...
  6. Offer to help in smaller ways. ...
  7. Consider your goals. ...
  8. Remain calm.

What do I do if I can't work due to anxiety and depression? ›

If symptoms of anxiety or depression prevent you from working a full-time job, you may be eligible for social security disability benefits.

How do you prove mental disability? ›

To prove your mental disability, you will need to have medical documentations, records and notes from any physicians you are seeing to show that your mental disability makes it impossible for you to work full time. The more medical evidence you have, the easier it is to prove your mental disability.

What are the 7 main mental disorders? ›

What Are the 7 types of Mental Disorders?
  • Anxiety Disorders.
  • Mood Disorders.
  • Psychotic Disorders.
  • Eating Disorders.
  • Personality Disorders.
  • Dementia.
  • Autism.
Apr 6, 2021

How do you explain gaps in employment due to mental illness? ›

You can write something like: “I had to take time off work to recover from an illness. Now I am back on track, and I want to resume my career.” This statement tells the recruiter exactly why there's a gap in your resume and emphasize that you're eager to get back in the workplace.

Should I quit my job due to anxiety? ›

Maybe. If you work in a high-stress job and have a lot of anxiety, there's no doubt that taking some time off or changing to a less stressful career will help your anxiety. If you find yourself asking “should I quit my job because of anxiety?” then it might be time to reevaluate your work situation.

What do I say to get stress leave? ›

Make an appointment with your doctor for your symptoms. Tell him or her about any changes in your sleep, diet or mental state. If these are stemming from factors in the workplace, your doctor may prescribe stress leave for a few days.

How do I ask for time off for personal reasons? ›

7 ways to ask for time off just the right way
  1. Choose your time wisely. ...
  2. Be specific and give relevant details. ...
  3. Get caught up with all of your work. ...
  4. Be fair with the rest of your team. ...
  5. Make sure you ask, not tell. ...
  6. Offer to help plan for when you're away. ...
  7. Request your time in writing.
Feb 10, 2022

Can you miss work due to anxiety? ›

Yes. Assuming that you work for a covered employer and are eligible for FMLA leave, you may take leave if you are unable to work due to a serious health condition under the FMLA.

What do you say when you call in sick for mental health? ›

Cyrus recommends keeping it short: "'I'm not feeling well today and would like to call in sick' — because feeling emotionally sick counts. Or, 'I'm unable to come in due to personal reasons. '"

How do you say I need a mental health day? ›

  1. Don't Say More Than You Need To. ...
  2. Keep It Short. ...
  3. Be Direct. ...
  4. Ask As Soon As You Can. ...
  5. Practice What You're Going To Say. ...
  6. Write Out A List Of Reasons Why You Need Your Mental Health Day. ...
  7. Think Of Possible Reactions And Have Responses Ready. ...
  8. You Don't Have To Say It's For Mental Health.
Jan 5, 2021

Can you be fired for missing work due to mental illness? ›

Can someone be fired for missing work due to mental illness? Normal stress is not considered a mental disability and workers who don't show up for work for that reason can be disciplined — although termination may be excessive if the employer hasn't tried other, less serious disciplinary measures first.

How do you tell your boss you are having a mental breakdown? ›

Budget more time than you think you'll need so that the conversation isn't cut short. Be clear about the impact your mental health challenges are having at work. If the cause is work-related, share that also. As much as possible, come with suggestions for how your manager or HR can help you.

Is depression a good reason to miss work? ›

Taking Time Off from Work Due to Depression

Employees diagnosed with major depression are permitted to take time off work to get treatment and recover from depression. In addition to being protected by the ADA, employees are also protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Can you miss work due to anxiety? ›

Yes. Assuming that you work for a covered employer and are eligible for FMLA leave, you may take leave if you are unable to work due to a serious health condition under the FMLA.

How do you tell your boss you can't work today? ›

How to tell your boss you can't work a shift
  1. Confirm your schedule. ...
  2. Ask to have a conversation. ...
  3. Give as much notice as possible. ...
  4. Acknowledge your obligation. ...
  5. Provide a reason. ...
  6. Plan ahead for your workload. ...
  7. Offer to make up the time. ...
  8. Understand the consequences.

What does burnout feel like? ›

Being burned out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don't see any hope of positive change in their situations. If excessive stress feels like you're drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up.

How do I ask for stress leave? ›

Make an appointment with your doctor for your symptoms. Tell him or her about any changes in your sleep, diet or mental state. If these are stemming from factors in the workplace, your doctor may prescribe stress leave for a few days.

Should I tell my boss about my anxiety disorder? ›

You cannot be required to disclose a mental health condition unless you are requesting a job accommodation. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees who disclose physical and mental health conditions.

Should I quit my job if it is affecting my mental health? ›

While quitting a job that leaves your mental health in a poor state may sound like a clear-cut decision, it's far from it. Financial and social considerations are critical to consider, along with the commitment—warranted or not—many people feel towards their employer.

What are my mental health rights at work? ›

Employers cannot discriminate against any employee (or candidate) with a mental health illness that classifies as a disability. Employers must carry out a risk assessment for stress at work, and take action based on their findings.

What do I do if I can't work due to anxiety and depression? ›

If symptoms of anxiety or depression prevent you from working a full-time job, you may be eligible for social security disability benefits.

What does a mental breakdown at work look like? ›

However, common signs to look for include: Extreme mood swings. Panic attacks. Emotional outburst.

How do you tell your boss you're overwhelmed? ›

How to tell your boss your work is overwhelming
  1. Schedule a meeting with your boss. ...
  2. Prepare what you are going to say. ...
  3. Provide specific examples. ...
  4. Focus on your work experience. ...
  5. Offer thoughtful solutions. ...
  6. Offer to help in smaller ways. ...
  7. Consider your goals. ...
  8. Remain calm.

How do you explain burnout to your boss? ›

When you feel ready to go to your manager, be open about the fact that you're feeling the effects of burnout. Communicate the symptoms you have noticed – both physical and mental – and highlight some things you identified as needs for overcoming your current state.

Videos

1. Columbia Psychiatry's Dr. Erin Engle Talks About the Mental Health Benefits of Taking Time Off Work
(Columbia Psychiatry)
2. How to turn off work thoughts during your free time | Guy Winch
(TED)
3. How can employers deal with mental health sick leave?
(Slater and Gordon Lawyers (UK))
4. Five Signs Your Job May Be Toxic For Your Mental Health
(Douglas Bloch)
5. Can I get a leave of absence from work?
(ISBAlawyer)
6. I'm Scared to Return to Work After Depression | This Morning
(This Morning)

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