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I took a mental health job leave, here’s why you should too

November 12, 2021, 4:22 PM UTC
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My brain felt broken.

I sat slumped in my chair, staring in a tear-stained haze at my computer screen. I could barely think, let alone write. Usually, I could push myself past the anxiety and self-sabotaging thoughts that threatened to hold me hostage. But this time, my mind and emotions refused to comply with my workload.

Minutes earlier, my therapist told me a mental health leave from my job wasn’t an option. She thought my anxiety diagnosis wouldn’t qualify me to take short-term disability (the official name for one type of leave). Thankfully, she was wrong. Later, I learned that a helpful first step is to contact your company’s Human Resources department to start the process to apply for leave. Therapists aren’t always familiar with the required documents and eligible conditions to access leave, according to Dr. Lynn Bufka, the American Psychological Association‘s senior director of practice transformation and quality. 

But at that moment, those few sentences sent me spiraling into what felt like an almost catatonic state. I sent a hurried Slack message to my editor to say I had to take the day off. 

My temporary mental unraveling was a long time coming. For about a year, I dreaded leaving my bed before work and often felt physically sick. But up until that morning, I’d managed to keep my internal beasts from escaping their cages.

I’m far from the only one who’s bulldozed their mental health for the sake of a job. Eighty-four percent of full-time U.S. employees surveyed in Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report said at least one workplace factor negatively affected their mental health in 2020.

So, how do you know if you’re just due for a mental health day or if you need something more substantial? 

Should you take mental health leave?

“If you’re having Sunday Scaries every Sunday that’s probably a good indication that something is going on with that workplace that you need to pay attention to,” says Dr. Alfiee M. Breland-Noble, a psychologist and founder of the mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project, which focuses particularly on youth and young adults of color. 

A mental health leave may make you realize you just can’t return to your job (like it did for me) or it can give you the space to understand if the problem is indeed your job, something external, or a combination of both factors.

However, you must be aware you may not actually need a mental health leave, says Dr. Alfiee. If you just feel annoyed by an aspect of your job (like a colleague or a required work task) and you don’t have physical manifestations like a headache or stomach pains, you probably don’t need a mental health leave. Instead, you can have a conversation with that particular colleague to pinpoint what the issue is and resolve it or outsource that bothersome work chore. 

Dr. Alfiee isn’t only speaking from her experience with patients. The mental health expert previously left two “toxic work environments.” Because Dr. Alfiee had young children at the time, she gave herself a thirteen-month timeline before she quit one of those jobs. A year in, Dr. Alfiee had enough financial freedom to resign. 

But even if you recognize something’s wrong, you might ignore the signs and keep chugging along. That’s what I did–until I couldn’t. 

“There’s this idea that mental health is important but it’s not so important that it should be the thing that makes you leave your job,” says Dr. Alfiee. 

Stigma and mental health leave

While people have been increasingly open about their mental health struggles during the pandemic, the lingering stigma attached to mental health can stop someone from seeking out leave, says Dr. Bufka.

For some people, especially those of color, it can be harder to walk away from a job because of the guilt around work that’s likely been ingrained in them their entire lives. 

As a child, Dr. Alfiee (who is Black) was told enslaved Black people didn’t have the choice to work. She’s heard things like “you have the freedom to go to this job,” which made her feel like she had to be grateful to be employed even if the job was toxic. 

Dr. Alfiee’s also works with immigrant families. Children of immigrants are often told about the sacrifices their parents made all in hopes of a better life for their kids, she says.

“All those kinds of similar messages, I think, make it very challenging for people to attend to something as important as ‘this job doesn’t make me feel good,’” says Dr. Alfiee. 

As a brown woman, I worried about going public with my mental health leave because I feared I’d be viewed as less than my white colleagues who did the same thing and lose future employment opportunities. Ultimately, I decided that sharing my story was worth the risk because it might help others who are struggling.

I also don’t think I would have quit my job without the pandemic or a similar life-altering event. 

“I think the pandemic has made people realize our mental and emotional resources are not unlimited,” says Dr. Bufka. “Part of what I think has happened for many individuals is questioning, ‘huh, you know I’ve always just done this job or always thought this is what I want to do and I’m realizing–no, it’s not working.’”

After my two-and-a-half-month leave, I feel invigorated, and I slowly came to realize my job shouldn’t make me feel like I can’t breathe. While I went into my mental health leave thinking I’d return to my job, the time away gave me the clarity to realize I needed to quit so I didn’t end up trading my mental health for a paycheck.

Siobhan Neela-Stock is a freelance writer.

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