Help the Sad Kid Not Get Fired
May 11, 2012 12:34 PM   Subscribe

I have depression. I was just fired from my part-time job at my university for "inconsistent attendance" during shifts for the past two semesters. I realize that I can't get my job back, but how can I prevent this in the future?

If my depression was flaring up, I would tell my supervisors that I was sick and that I would have to miss work. They made it clear that I was taking too much time off in the beginning of the semester. Should I have disclosed that I was having a mental health issue? What could I have done differently, other than somehow dragging myself out of bed and forcing myself to stop crying?

I've been struggling with depression since I got to college, but it got much worse this year. I can't talk to my parents about this because my mom just thinks I'm "only sad" and that I can snap out of it. She is just going to be disappointed in me. People on campus tend not to suspect I'm depressed. I'm miserable and I feel like my life is going to hell.

I'm trying therapy again at my school's Counselling & Mental Health Service. I had my first session yesterday, and my therapist is considering medication. I got the email from my employer this morning.

I'm in Massachusetts, if that matters.


Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You should look into the Family and Medical Leave Act. It may be too late for this job, but in your next job, if you can get the absences approved by a doctor, they may not be able to punish you for them. Hopefully you don't have to tell them what it is for, just that you have a medical issue that is preventing you from working that day.
posted by soelo at 12:41 PM on May 11, 2012

Wait, this employment is at a university that you are attending? Talk to the school's disabilities office. They should be able to advise you about whether you are entitled to "reasonable accommodations" both for classes and work. Universities are among the few institutions that are actually prepared to deal with this kind of issue.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:47 PM on May 11, 2012 [14 favorites]

You're doing the right thing by getting treatment. You need to be consistent with your treatment, though. And you need to discuss with your mental health professional how to discuss this medical condition with your parents. Not being able to discuss it with them is unhelpful for your recovery.

Absenteeism is a hallmark of my experience with depression. I just stop showing up for life. And it always has a negative impact on my relationships (personal/professional). In college, when I was going through one period of depression, I found it very helpful to schedule my life down to the quarter-hour. There are some really excellent scheduling options out there. But for me, depression has never been curling up in bed and crying all the time. For me, depression manifests itself as a fog. I just stop seeing/experiencing things clearly. I stop having a good sense of time/duration. And I stop being able to follow through on really simple tasks. Scheduling myself so rigorously was helpful because it meant that I got an appropriate amount of sleep, and it took the guess-work out of the whole thing.

Anyway, good for you for getting professional help. That's the most important part. Stick with it.
posted by jph at 12:49 PM on May 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I personally would never disclose I had a mental health issue. I want to be judged on my work performance alone, not my personal life.

You pretty much do have to drag yourself out of bed. Start now and it may not be so hard next time you get a job. Drag yourself out of bed, force yourself to exercise, and eat right. Research your condition. I really like the book "Mindful Way Through Depression," as well as cognitive behavioral therapy workbooks on depression and self-esteem. You can find those online or at your local bookstore. Fight hard, is my advice. And keep going to counseling.
posted by amodelcitizen at 12:50 PM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Okay, depression isn't anything to dick around with. You're on the right track by going to the health center and getting medical treatment and therapy.

Medication can really, really help.

If you have another flare up, I would discuss it with HR and supervisors. The sad truth of the matter is that when you're hired to do a job, it's not only a way for you to get money, but it's a way for the employer to get someone to come and work.

If you're not reliable for that, it's not very fair to an employer who needs a steady and reliable workforce.

That being said, this is not the only game in town.

Temping may work well for you since you can pick and choose when you want to work. Or see if there's a "floater" type job at a local department store, where they'll call you into work when someone calls in sick or for busy times. Macy's had this type of position. It was good for someone who wasn't feeling very outgoing because they could fold sweaters or put clothes away from the fitting rooms, leaving the regulars to interact with customers.

As you get help, and perhaps start medication, you'll find those debilitating episodes will diminish.

I had the same thing in college and what really helped was when I stopped eating sugar and red meat. Weird, but true.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:50 PM on May 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

You can prevent this in future by recognising it is a health issue and needs to be treated and monitored by professionals. You will probably feel much better after talking to your counsellor, learning new coping skills and starting medication. But be aware of stressors and signs that you aren't coping as well and be proactive in cutting it off before it gets entrenched. If you have a lose friend who can honestly tell you when they recognise depressive symptoms in you, believe them. Good luck.
posted by saucysault at 1:06 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

If this is a work study type job through a college, go talk to a dean (or whatever they're called at your school) and talk to them about your job and what to do. It sounds like you've started dealing with your depression which is so fantastic! This is another way of dealing with it. You are so far from the first college student to face this. It may be that you can't get your job back, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if you could with the help of an administrator or someone in the Disabilities office and proof that you're dealing with your depression. Good luck!
posted by MadamM at 1:09 PM on May 11, 2012

Depression is classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I suggest you research your rights under ADA. In general, an employer must provide reasonable accommodations as long as you disclose your condition.

Depending on the particulars, you may even be able to file a discrimination complaint for this job through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
posted by the_blizz at 1:13 PM on May 11, 2012

In the future: FMLA, intermittent type. Depending on what kind of company you work for, you might never have to talk to anyone in your office. Really big companies hire third-party HR to deal with this and the casework is all done over the phone and no one gets to know why you have it if it is granted.

If you work for a smaller company, tell them that you want to apply for FMLA, how do you do it. Don't tell them why. If, once granted, anyone asks why you are missing work, you don't have to tell them. Personal. Always personal. You need FMLA to do that first though, it is what protects you under law.

Don't talk about it with supervisors. Don't talk about it with HR unless you KNOW they have right-to-know. Don't explain yourself. It's the doctor's job to make your case, it's the case worker's job to decide. Talking about your personal medical situation with your employers puts them in a very difficult position - their job is not to help you, their job is to maximize the benefit of spending payroll on you. Do not give them a reason to believe that you are going to be a problem in the future. What if you figure out a way to manage your symptoms? You will be fine, but everyone will still consider you to a liability.

Protect yourself under the law, and keep personal problems personal. It is not fun, but, not everyone is open-minded about depression, and some people don't care. You don't want to find out who those people are by losing your job.
posted by newg at 1:14 PM on May 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

The FMLA does not apply to employers with fewer than 50 employees, which most certainly does not apply to your college but may become important after graduation. Check relevant state laws for additional protection if you choose to work for a small business.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 1:18 PM on May 11, 2012

Also: your employers will know that you are on FMLA (even if not why) and they will probably not like it. Your protected status will protect you from at-will firing, but it will not protect you from subtler forms of discontent: for example, it might be hard to get promoted. If you do shift work, it might be hard to get good shifts. You might not be taken seriously. The best option is to do what you are doing already: get the help you need to get functional.

FMLA is like, "I don't have things worked out, but I need this job to eat."
FMLA is not usually like, "I want to have a career here."

It's not supposed to be this way, but, well. You should be aware of all the pros and cons. Talking to your mental health specialists can also give you some insight on how to handle employment w/r/t legal particulars.
posted by newg at 1:21 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I personally would never disclose I had a mental health issue. I want to be judged on my work performance alone, not my personal life.

When a health issue becomes big enough, as the poster's is, that it might cause one to be fired, it's better to disclose and get ADA protection than it is to suffer stoically.
posted by zippy at 1:32 PM on May 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

(IANAL, IANADoctor, etc.)You do not need to disclose the nature of your health problem. You should be able to go to the doctor, get diagnosed, and get a treatment plan. If the diagnosis of depression includes exhaustion, social phobia, or some other condition that keeps you from getting to work, you need a treatment plan that addresses this. Your doctor can write a letter stating that you have a medical condition that sometimes affects your attendance, and requires accommodation.

Employers are required to make reasonable accommodation, and they may not disclose your medical condition or need for accommodation.

Be careful not to get too isolated when you are depressed; it makes it worse. If you can get to work, it usually helps you cope, at least for that time period. You may be able to appeal the termination of employment if you told them you had a health problem. Definitely get assistance from the schools Disability Office. They often have tutoring or other programs that might help you with structuring your time; often a problem while depressed. Good luck.
posted by Mom at 1:49 PM on May 11, 2012

Seconding Ruthless Bunny about ceasing to eat sugar and red meat. And dairy. It also helped me when I started making green smoothies every day.

I applaud you for getting help. One thing I find helpful is generating streams of passive income, even small ones. Although some people use these income streams as a reason to sit around all day. YMMV.
posted by mekko at 2:12 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Forgot to add: side income is helpful because I feel less dependent on/helpless in the face of an employer's whims. This makes work easier for me. I can easily see how someone else might find it a good excuse to slack off at work and stop showing up, so again YMMV.

Keep taking care of yourself and keep asking for help. IANAT but your therapist may be able to either help you directly, or refer you to someone who specializes in managing depression, especially in the workforce.
posted by mekko at 2:23 PM on May 11, 2012

Can you clarify through a mod whether you are working as a work study student or as a parttime employee? I hire student workers, though I am definitely not your former employer, and the way their jobs and schedules are structured is very different than staff members. I can say that this sounds like a really rough situation, and I am so glad that you're getting help. If you a student employee, please do work with your dean and support staff to figure out a plan for future on/campus jobs. My student workers are essential so it creates a lot of problems for their peers and for me when they can't come in and don't let me know in advance. However, if I know they're sick or working on a big academic project, that always comes first. If I had a student who needed more intermittent work hours, I could create a work plan that was more flexible, as long as I knew in advance. Your dean or support staff may know what campus jobs can more easily accomodate this kind of schedule. So good luck! It sounds like you are in a place with support systems, and I hope they can help.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:47 PM on May 11, 2012

RuthlessBunny has the right idea. Work on getting yourself better so you won't have the problem of being unable to work. Counting on the idea that a disability will let you take off work whenever you want and still be employed and retaining a salary might not be wise. ""reasonable accommodations" can mean being flexible in giving you extra time off, but there comes a point when expecting an employer to pay you while you aren't working and then pay another person to do your work wouldn't be reasonable.

Even if it was, you would only be putting a bandage on the problem, enabling you to continue with your disability. This will only make it worse - perhaps much worse. Just missing work can get you more depressed because you start to feel guilty or start to blame yourself. Instead focus on getting better no matter what it takes. Therapy is good. Perhaps open up to a close friend who can help you.

Perhaps get a job that isn't are particular about adhering to a strict schedule
Perhaps look into doing something more self-employed. It depends on what type of work you are capable of, what sort of skills you can bring. Heck, perhaps you can get together with other people with similar problems and create a business together. Helping each other while making a living.
posted by 2manyusernames at 2:58 PM on May 11, 2012

Your employer may or may not have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or the Family and Medical Leave Act and/or local and state employment discrimination and accommodation laws. No one on MetaFilter can say for sure one way or another.

Talk with your counselor about finding out who your university's ADA coordinator is (it may or may not be the same office where students get help with accommodations.) Take a look at this list of accommodations for depression from JAN. Also call or email JAN and tell them about your situation; they may be able to help you get your job back.

For your next job, or this one if you get it back, be sure to stay in regular contact with medical professionals about this issue, and be prepared to have them fill out FMLA paperwork. They may also need to fill out ADA paperwork specific to your institution. It's a good idea to look through that list of accommodations and try and think through what would have helped you (besides intermittent leave, which you do have a right to if you qualify for FMLA (*)) Also take a look at the BU Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation information for employers pages.

As an HR type, I always give employees: You can always give permission to your employer to talk with your provider about providing accommodations, BTW. This may or may not be wise. Depression is far less stigmatized than many other mental illnesses.

(*) You qualify for FMLA if you have worked at least one year for your employer (doesn't have to be full-time or continuous), and have worked at least 1250 hours for them (excluding holiday, vacation, paid sick, etc.) in the last twelve months, and if your employer is required to provide it (basically, more than 50 employees in your work location or within 75 miles of it, OR a government agency.)
posted by SMPA at 2:59 PM on May 11, 2012

Oh - and you may have the right to accommodation under the ADA for intermittent leave - under the FMLA, your employer has to give it to you if your doctor says you need it; under the ADA, your employer just has to achieve the end of giving you effective accommodation, which may or may not be exactly the thing you want. ADA protection works out rather differently than FMLA in practice, because FMLA is just about not being at work, and ADA is about getting the work done.
posted by SMPA at 3:03 PM on May 11, 2012

I have a bunch of college students who work for me in MA. A student who calls out a lot gets warned and then gets let go if they don't keep up. We have hours that need to be filled - the student who blows them off not only hurts our coverage, but they keep those hours from other students who want them. (Plus those who do show up end up picking up the slack) I try to give them as much leeway as possible, but eventually, we need the work to get done and the hours covered.

A student who calls out repeatedly, but has the Dean of Students or medical office step in and say "Student is having some issue" may lose their hours for the semester, but they'll be welcome back next semester.

So talk to your Dean or medical office or student employment folks. They will add the veritas to your situation.

I feel for students in your situation. College is a rough time for many, but your peers often cheapen your excuses by calling out with all the same sad sounds so they can play hooky. You need to differentiate yourself from them and the best way to do that is by reaching out to the support network put in place by your university.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:49 PM on May 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and talk to your Office of Student Employment when you start looking for jobs. The 30 students I have, I need to cover operating hours. A student really needs to be at work when they are scheduled too. However, I know there are work study type jobs that don't have set hours, just deliverable deadlines that need to be met. Your OSE should be able to help you connect with those positions.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:56 PM on May 11, 2012

Oh boy, can I ever relate. I had issues with depression (combined with epilepsy for a super fun combo platter) in college and missed quite a lot of work/classes. It was a really rough time.

The best thing you can do (besides getting treatment so you can work more consistently, which it sounds like you're already doing) is to talk to a disabilities officer at your school and get on record as to exactly what accommodations you require. This person can help you negotiate with your professors and boss (if you're doing work-study) to be sure that your situation is understood as a medical one and not one of shirking responsibility. Find who this person is at your school and make an appointment, they will tell you what they need from you in terms of documentation. For me, this was not a difficult process and the disabilities officer was infinitely easier to talk to than my professors.

If you are employed outside of school... I can tell you that you absolutely need to find out what you require for ADA protection. I have never been outright fired for issues with seizures, but I've absolutely found that an employer truly does not care why you're missing work so often. Your focus needs to be on covering yourself so that you can do your job and not get fired for missing work when you need to - not only explaining yourself because, in my experience, employers are not in a position to be understanding and lenient about missing work unless they're on the hook as well, no matter how many doctors' notes you provide.
posted by sonika at 5:48 AM on May 12, 2012

If you're a student worker, Wordwoman and robocop is bleeding have it.

I work at a university in MA and at our school you would talk to the disabilities office about accomodations. I know that when professors are notified about student disabilities they are only told that the student has an issue and requires xyz accomodation; I assume it would be the same with employers. Ideally, the disabilities office would be able to advise you on what departments have jobs that would be more flexible with your attendance and you could get a work accommodation that said you might have to miss work sometimes.

As a job-hunting tip, customer-service type jobs will be the strictest about attendance (dining halls and the library desk are the two places I've heard of students getting fired for poor attendance as opposed to simply not rehired for another semester). That said, even in offices where the students aren't on the front lines time-sensitive work may be set aside for them and having that accomodation set up will make it easier for your employer to work around you (many of us want to support our student workers as much as we can, I promise).

If you happen to be at one of the Five Colleges, Memail me and I may be able to provide more specific advice.
posted by camyram at 11:46 AM on May 12, 2012

Hi. I hope you are still checking this thread if you have not yet found support. I contacted a friend who is an employment lawyer in Massachusetts and she just got back to me. (IANYL, neither is she :) ).

"Here are some ideas:

Have your person check out Disability Law Center. The website lists their priorities, e.g. those who are elegible. If he/she is, it may be worth filing a complaint there. Otherwise, here is the list of members of the private plaintiff-side employment bar.

There are many good ones -- in different locations across the state. I really like Mala Rafik. She and her firm specialize in disability related issues."

Hope this or other folks' suggestions help.
posted by anya32 at 10:37 AM on May 17, 2012

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