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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Your Guide to Mental Health Leave—Because Sometimes You Need a Real Break

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Nobody’s immune to bad days at work. You’ve had them too, right? Your to-do list and inbox feel like a giant game of whack-a-mole you can barely keep up with. You’re convinced you stuck your foot in your mouth during a team meeting and can’t stop replaying the experience in your head. You missed an important deadline and are beating yourself up over dropping the ball. While they’re absolutely disheartening, these types of hiccups and stressors are a normal part of our working lives.

But what happens when the odd bad day starts to snowball into something bigger? Maybe you’ve found that making it through the workday feels like dragging your feet through wet cement as you struggle to focus on your tasks. Or that your stomach’s tied in knots over projects that used to excite you. You feel completely drained, exhausted, and even a little hopeless—and you know that neither a quick vacation nor a simple self-care routine are going to right the ship.

You need a bigger solution—one that actually helps you get to the root of the issue. It’s at that point that you might think about taking a mental health leave from work. That’s what happened with Chauntelle Lewis, a freelance diversity and inclusion consultant and inclusive communities manager, who took a month-long mental health leave from a previous job before eventually changing employers, and with Jordan*, a tech professional in Boston, who experienced “deep burnout” before opting for a mental health leave.

But what exactly is a mental health leave? How can you tell if you need one? And how do you actually handle the process? Here are the real answers—and the real stories—you need to hear.

What exactly is mental health leave?

Mental health leave is exactly what it sounds like: It’s when you take a break from work in order to have dedicated time to focus on improving your mental health.

“Taking a mental health leave is a time for individuals to step away from the daily life of being a ‘human doing’ and delve into the space of being a ‘human being,’” explains Amira Johnson, a licensed master social worker at The Berman Center, a treatment and therapy center in Atlanta.

Pressing “pause” on work to focus on your mental well-being might sound like a pipe dream, but this type of leave is becoming more common as the pandemic pushes the importance of mental health into the spotlight. Between December 2020 and July 2021, for example, employees reported a 21% increase in burnout and a 17% increase in physical symptoms of stress. While those statistics are discouraging, there’s an upside: It’s opened the door for people to candidly discuss those shared experiences, with one psychiatrist saying that mental health is now part of the national conversation “unlike any other time since I started practicing medicine.”

Whether you’re experiencing increased stress and signs of burnout or are dealing with a diagnosable mental health condition like depression, a mental health leave gives you time to heal while ensuring your job is waiting for you, explains Karla Lever, PhD, licensed clinical mental health counselor supervisor and director of Atrium Health’s Employee Assistance Program.

You might hear the terms “mental health leave” and “stress leave” used interchangeably and, medically speaking, that’s not exactly incorrect. But the words you choose could carry different meanings for you and your coworkers. “Stress is something we all experience, and using the term ‘stress leave’ might normalize the experience for others, rather than ‘mental health leave,’ which may bring up the idea that you have a mental illness,” says Dr. Candice Schaefer, a clinical psychologist and Global Head of Employee Wellness at Twitter.

How do you recognize if you need mental health leave?

“Emotions ebb and flow,” explains Muse career coach Benjamin Ritter, EdD, founder of LFY Consulting. “At times we may find ourselves on the low side of the emotional spectrum.” It’s inevitable. But how do you know when your lows are so low or so frequent that they require a bigger solution?

Your mental health is as unique as you are, so indicators can vary. However, the experts agree that there are some common red flags to look for, all of which interfere with a person’s ability to function normally at work. These include:

  • Finding less pleasure in work you were once passionate about (or even feeling irritable about tasks you used to get excited about)
  • Struggling to get yourself to actually show up for work (something that Lewis says she experienced herself, combined with “extreme anxiety and burnout”)
  • Falling off your daily routine after an extended period of consistency
  • Demonstrating mood changes, significant shifts in your behavior, and a lack of compassion or enthusiasm when communicating with coworkers
  • Having difficulty concentrating or experiencing confused thinking

Those are somewhat early warning signs, but they can snowball to become even more serious and include difficulty sleeping, excessive crying or hopelessness, and even thoughts of suicide or homicide.

Think your coworkers or supervisor will be the ones to point out that you aren’t acting like yourself? That’s not always the case, especially if you work remotely. It’s entirely possible that you could be trudging along without others ever noticing a decline or difference in your attitude and output. “Most of my work was very independent and I was struggling to do that. But if somebody asked me for something, I was able to deliver,” Jordan says. “My boss didn’t see any change in my performance, but I knew I wasn’t performing at my best and that continued to spiral downward.”

If and when you notice a shift or decline in your mental health, it’s important to connect with a qualified mental health professional like a therapist or psychologist. Not only does this give you much-needed support and help you better understand what you’re dealing with, but it also equips you with documentation you might need in order to access mental health leave and other benefits.

What are your options for taking mental health leave?

When you determine that a pause from work is the best move for you, figuring out the next steps can be daunting—especially when you already feel like you’re barely keeping your head above water. But a smart place to start is understanding what benefits and types of leave are available to you.

There are two different categories of leave you could take:

  • Continuous: Leave taken for an uninterrupted period of time (e.g., taking two months off)
  • Intermittent: Leave taken sporadically (e.g., taking a few hours off here or a day off there or working half-days or three days a week over the course of a few months)

When it comes to actual leave benefits, employees can generally access mental health leave in a number of different ways:

  • An employer-provided benefit: Some employers offer paid leave specifically for mental health, especially with a growing emphasis on mental well-being in the workplace. More than a third of employers updated their health plans to expand access to mental health benefits (this encompasses various benefits, not just leave) during the pandemic.
  • Short-term disability: This is an insurance policy (usually provided or purchased through your employer) that could offer paid leave for mental health, depending on the specifics of your plan. Different policies have different definitions of “disability,” so you’ll need to consult your policy documents to see what’s covered.
  • Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA): This is a federal employment law that requires employers to offer up to 12 weeks of leave for a variety of family or medical reasons, including mental health concerns. While your job will be protected, note that this leave is entirely unpaid.
  • Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML): A few states offer this type of paid leave that allows you to receive a portion of your salary from your state. That came into play for Jordan, who used a combination of their state paid leave and FMLA to take mental health leave.

Not sure which one(s) are available to you? Your HR department should be able to guide you.

How do you talk to your manager about mental health leave?

With a better handle on some of the logistics, you’ve laid at least a little of the groundwork to connect with your manager. If your mouth is dry and your hands are clammy at the very thought of it, that’s normal. This can be a nerve-racking conversation to have—especially since mental health leaves usually involve personal details about your life.

In an ideal world, you’d have an open and honest relationship with your manager that empowers you to candidly share your struggles and challenges during your regular one-on-ones and other conversations. If that’s the case, then your desire for a mental health leave likely won’t come as a shock.

But even if you haven’t previously broached the subject with your supervisor, now is the time to schedule a private, dedicated conversation. You don’t need to give a detailed breakdown of what you want to discuss, but a brief heads up is helpful. You can keep it somewhat vague by saying that you’d like to discuss your recent work and ask for their guidance. Mental health leave is a big subject. Allot more time for the meeting than you think you’ll need so you don’t feel pressure to rush through it.

That discussion will be a lot smoother (and you’ll likely feel calmer) if you’re well-prepared. So ahead of your sit-down, it’s wise to:

  • Understand how much you’re comfortable sharing about what you’re experiencing and why you want to take leave. While you’ll need to provide enough context, don’t feel obligated to elaborate on all of the details.
  • Know what solution you’re aiming for. In this case, if you need to take leave, you should make that explicitly clear and ask what options are available for you to take that time off.
  • Think about your desired timeline. For example, do you need to take leave immediately? Do you want to take it all at once?

“If you don’t feel comfortable approaching your manager or colleagues about taking leave, then you can always go directly to your HR team for assistance,” Schaefer says. “They will help you have that conversation with your manager and draw boundaries on what you are legally obligated to share.”

What should you do during your mental health leave?

Here’s the short answer: Whatever helps you recover and feel recharged.

For Jordan, that involved investing a lot of time in hobbies like drawing, reading, biking, exercise, and developing new and healthier routines.

One big thing that had disappeared when they were experiencing burnout was executive function, Jordan says, referring to a group of mental skills related to memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. “It was trash. I couldn’t do anything.” For Jordan, “progress” meant being able to make a small plan for what they’d like to do the next day.

Other people might find healing and respite in other areas. Lewis prioritized connections and relationships with other people. “Speak to loved ones and trusted friends,” she says, as those people were a pillar of support for her during her own recovery period. Lewis also continued to work with a qualified mental health professional during her leave. “I was lucky at the time, as I already had a therapist who was able to check in with me,” she says.

As far as what’s happening back at the office while you’re away? Well, that’s not your concern. Both Jordan and Lewis say they were completely disconnected from work during their leaves. With that said, you might have to fulfill some reporting or check-in obligations with your employer depending on what type of leave you’re taking. But that should be exclusively focused on complying with your benefits, not handling any normal responsibilities of your position. Your goal is to give yourself the time you need to feel better and restore your normal level of functioning.

“Don’t expect too much of yourself on a mental health leave,” Jordan says. “Give yourself time to build back that capacity.”

Does mental health leave actually help?

An intentional pause in your work life offers a number of benefits that will allow you to dedicate more time and energy to your mental well-being. A leave can:

  • Reduce stress by removing work obligations from the picture
  • Provide adequate time to rest, recharge, and work with a mental health professional
  • Offer a better sense of balance and connection between the mind and body
  • Improve retention, which is good not only for the employer but also the employee, given that job loss can be an added stressor

But while this type of leave offers plenty of advantages that you likely wouldn’t experience if you continued to grit your teeth and push through work, it’s not always a fix-all that ends in a seamless and joyous return to your job.

For some, it gives them space to realize they need something different. Lewis’ month-long leave helped her realize that her work environment itself was no longer a good fit for her and that she needed to change employers. Jordan started with the intention of taking a four-week leave and later extended that by another four weeks before they realized it still wasn’t enough time to recover and resigned entirely.

Work is supposed to be a positive and fulfilling experience. “It offers a sense of purpose, self-esteem, a chance to keep our brains active, helps us be self-sufficient because of the money we earn, and offers a way to increase social connections, all of which are beneficial for our mental health,” Lever says. But when your work feels more like a subtraction than an addition, you may need a break in order to restore your positive relationship with your career.

Even if a mental health leave isn’t in your immediate future, Jordan recommends taking the time to familiarize yourself with what your options are. “When you do need them, you might not be in a position just mentally to get yourself through that process,” they say. So read your employee handbook, understand your policies, and ask HR questions about your benefits.

Finally, the biggest thing to remember is this: There shouldn’t be any guilt or shame in taking mental health leave. In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised by how supportive the people around you can be. You’re only human—and every single person you work with is too. 

*Jordan’s name was changed to allow them to speak freely about their work experience.

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