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So You Need a Mental Health Break From Work? I Did Too. Here’s How I Made It Possible.

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

A few years ago, I took a mental health leave from work. I used that time to piece my life back together and deal with the fact that I was broken in a million different places. I had just been promoted at work, and was excited about the new role I was starting — I had been waiting for an opening on a particular team for months, and jumped at the opportunity when a spot opened up. The day after I signed my new contract, there was an organizational change, and I suddenly found myself in a role I didn’t want, on a team where I didn’t know anyone, feeling lost and alone. As much as I tried to adjust to this confusing and unfair change, I felt myself drowning more as each day passed. It got to a point where I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, and I dreaded being at work. I’d become a broken shell of myself, and my suicidal ideation was taking over.

Both my doctor and therapist (who were incredibly supportive through all this) encouraged me to take some time off. Me? Take time off? Absolutely not. So much of my confidence and self-worth hinged on my career. I never thought I was good at much, but I was damn good at my job, and I couldn’t fathom the thought of not having that anymore. I tried to switch teams, but it was no use — I was stuck. It got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore, and I had no choice but to follow my doctor’s advice and step back.

As much as I hated being on leave, it was 100% the right call. So if you think you might need to step back for a minute and gather yourself — do it. I’m a huge proponent of taking mental health leaves because it was a critical reset that completely changed how I viewed myself and my career. In the moment I felt so weak, but looking back, I see how much strength it took to stop and say “I can’t do this, I’m drowning, I need help.”

Not only did it save my life, but it taught me valuable lessons.

Trying to take a mental health leave can be complicated because there isn’t really a guidebook, which makes it difficult to navigate and know what the necessary steps are. Here were the steps that occurred in my process:

1. Get a doctor’s note.

My doctor didn’t disclose what I was going through, just that her medical advice was for me to take two weeks off of work and then reassess. I provided this letter to my boss, who passed it along to HR.

2. Go on short-term disability.

A representative from my benefits provider reached out and informed me that my company would not be handling my short-term disability claim but that the insurance company would be. In order for insurance to classify this as a paid leave, I had to disclose specific details about my health. I had to explain my depression in-depth and keep them updated regarding seeing my doctor or therapist. Until the claim was approved, I didn’t know if I would be placed on paid or unpaid leave, which was incredibly stressful.

3. Follow up with insurance and doctors.

I followed up with my doctor every few days and knew I’d be off for a minimum of two weeks. After two weeks, my doctor and I decided I should go back to work, but only on a part-time basis for another week or two to ease me back into it. When I sent this latest note to my insurance provider, they declined and said that my company was not prepared for my return yet.

4. Follow a return-to-work plan.

After a third week off, I was allowed to return to work part-time. I worked half days for about a week before returning back full-time. Unfortunately, during this time, my workload wasn’t cut in half so I was stressed out trying to cram a full day of work into just a few hours, and found it easier just to work the full day.

5. Close the claim.

Once I had fully returned to work, I had to follow up with insurance a couple more times to let them know that I was doing OK, and then we continued on like nothing had ever happened.

At no point through this process did I know what the next steps would be, but my main focus was dealing with my fragile state, and I’d deal with the next steps as they came. I initially struggled with being on leave — I didn’t know what to do with myself or how to spend my days. Because I was on sick leave, I felt like I couldn’t leave the house or do anything enjoyable. I felt like I couldn’t be in my apartment alone, so I flew back to my hometown to spend some quiet, disconnected days in the mountains. Getting away helped me focus on my mind and healing, and entirely removed me from my stressful environment. I then went to visit a friend, who took care of me for a couple of days and listened to my misery until the middle of the night.

After about a week, I returned home to spend my second week back in my own environment. I tried to use this time to set some good mental health habits — get out for a walk every day, meet a friend for coffee, go to the doctor’s office, go to therapy, and eat proper meals. The overwhelming depression I was experiencing before going on leave made it impossible to take care of my basic needs, and this served as a bit of a reset.

Returning was much harder than anticipated, but I was lucky to have a wonderful mentor and old boss to support me through adjusting back. She had been in my corner since I started spiraling, and made a point to be there for me as I tried to find my way back. I wouldn’t have made it without her support.

As much as I didn’t enjoy taking a mental health leave, and I wish it was handled better, I absolutely needed it and would do it again. Taking a leave didn’t make me any less of a person, and it didn’t make me a failure or weak. Not only did it save my life, but it taught me valuable lessons about my health being the most important. Ultimately, things worked out OK — I ended up becoming great friends with my new team members, and I finished the following year winning the Top Performer Award. That wouldn’t have been possible had I not stopped to take care of my mental health first.

So if you’re wondering if you should take that break, you should. If you’re struggling, step back and work on getting your head above water. You’re not alone, and you don’t deserve to suffer for any job or company. Your health matters, your mind matters; you matter.

Getty Images photo via lakshmiprasad S

Originally published: July 7, 2022
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