So...I'm going on a medical leave...k bye! (runs away)
November 17, 2015 10:34 AM   Subscribe

I am about to go on a medical leave from work because of some mental health issues. I feel ashamed and guilty, and I don't know how to tell my manager - email? Meeting (how could I not cry in a meeting)? What specific words and phrases can I use so that he won't know or guess the reason for my leave? What do I say, and how?

I'm a software dev in a large old-school corporate company - which is good because I was able to discreetly handle most of this with HR and I have all the protections around me to ensure that I'll get benefits while I'm off and that my job is safe and that details surrounding the leave are confidential. But, I have to tell my manager and I just don't know how. I'm in a panic trying to figure out exactly what to say, how to avoid saying too little or too much...I just don't know how to do this. I'm scared he will correctly guess that this is a mental health thing, which makes me super uncomfortable and I don't trust him not to give that impression to the rest of the team while I'm gone, which could lead to stigma when I return, and this all just feels really yucky. I wish I could just send a vague email and disappear, but I don't suppose that's the right way to go about this. Can you please help?
posted by kitcat to Work & Money (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
have you asked hr what to say? they might have a form letter that hits all the points.

otherwise - "boss, i'm taking [name of medical leave] and i expect to be gone for [x amount of time]. if you have any further questions please contact hr."
posted by nadawi at 10:41 AM on November 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I wonder if HR can do the telling? They will know the correct phrasing to protect your privacy, and can just say "we don't know" to any questions.

If you have to be the one to tell the manager, and don't think you can do it in person, an email like the one nadawi suggested is all you need.
posted by underthehat at 10:44 AM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is what HR people do; help you with these types of situation.
Maybe they can be in the room with you, when you tell him.
Maybe, as Nadawi said, they can provide you with a script or help you formulate a discussion that keeps everyone happy - you, HR and the Manager.

My assumption here is that this leave hasn't been composed in the dark, and the Manager has been in the loop in some way, shape or form.

Good on you, for taking care of yourself. I wish you the best.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 10:45 AM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that lots of people suffer from "invisible" physical chronic illnesses, e.g. lupus. Don't tell your manager why you're taking medical leave, and he presses, just repeat that you're having some complex medical issues that are better dealt with on leave so that you can be 100% when you return to work.
posted by serelliya at 10:45 AM on November 17, 2015 [11 favorites]

You should go for nadawi's correct phrasing of simply saying you are going on leave and provided an expected return date. If the time is less than a week, you can do this by email. If the time is more than a week, you should do it in person. Any non-clueless manager will not ask follow-up questions unless you offer the information, as any such questions are a liability both for the manager and the company.

That said, I don't think you can really avoid what you are trying to avoid. Managers also realize that employees that take significant medical leave without providing any details and come back without obvious indications of surgery are generally taking leave due to mental health care reasons. This is, of course, by no means a universally true statement and there are exceptions. However, your manager will make the connection. It's up to your manager to be a good manager at that point and not do anything with that connection.
posted by saeculorum at 10:47 AM on November 17, 2015

HR should be happy to help with this, as it will reduce the odds of your boss doing something that will break the law.
posted by SMPA at 10:49 AM on November 17, 2015

I'd email so that there's a paper trail. You don't have to subject yourself to an in-person meeting if you're not up to it. Keep it simple: Dear Boss, My doctor has recommended I take medical leave to resolve a current health issue. I expect to be out of the office and unavailable for X weeks. I've already spoken with HR and all official arrangements have been made. I appreciate your discretion and support and HR has recommended that the details not be discussed.

Then, if there are questions, tell Boss that HR has recommended that there are no detailed discussions about the nature of the issue. For the company's protection. If there's repeated prying, go back to HR and let them handle it.
posted by quince at 10:51 AM on November 17, 2015

"Dear Kevin,
Please be advised that I will be taking a medical leave for three weeks beginning November 23 2015. I anticipapate my return date will be December 14 2015. I have been in contact with Nancy in HR and have provided her with all the necessary documentation from my doctor. If you have any questions, Nancy will be able to help you.
Signed, Kitkat.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:53 AM on November 17, 2015 [13 favorites]

Great advice above (I'm an advocate for "Let HR take care of it"), but I just wanted to add one thing in specific response to your question:

What specific words and phrases can I use so that he won't know or guess the reason for my leave?

You can't. Just reconcile yourself to this. He's 1) your boss, and 2) a human being. 1 means that he'll want to know why one of his resources is no longer available. That's pretty natural, and speaking as an occasional boss, it's reasonable. 2 means that he might have a very human concern for your well-being and want to know what you might be suffering from, either from pure insensitive curiosity or so he can help in some way (even just by being sympathetic and realizing "Okay, kitcat is suffering from X, and therefore I need to do Y.").

Your best bet is to ask HR to remind him that, while HIPAA does not specifically apply to him in this case, he might be exposing the company to a lawsuit if he speculates out loud or spreads a rumor, so he should shut his damn mouth. Obviously, this may or may not work, but it probably won't make it more likely to happen.
posted by Etrigan at 11:20 AM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was in exactly this position. I'm also in IT at a large, old-school organization. I took a bit over a month for mental health leave. I was terrified about telling my boss and co-workers, what they would think, what would happen to my job and responsibilities as a result, if I'd actually have a stable job to return to, and on and on.

I set everything up through HR. Nobody except one HR person knew anything other than "Leave is approved for CttW from this date to this date."
I told my boss that leave was approved and she'd be getting paperwork from HR. I gave dates but no other information.
I was lucky to go away to a place where I wasn't really able to have any contact with my office, but I'd suggest you do the same even if it's not imposed on you. Knowing there was nothing I could do job-related while on leave made it easier for me.
When I returned I spoke with HR again and got everything in line for my return and then spoke with my boss, not divulging any details other than the date I'd be back. (I did eventually talk to her, but you do not have to. It was my choice.)

Short version - err on the side of saying too little and use HR as much as possible. This is a standard thing that they've dealt with many times before and they are there to help with exactly this kind of thing.

I really understand feeling ashamed and guilty and I won't tell you how to feel but please know that there are so many people who are or have been in your position and you should not ever feel ashamed about doing anything to take care of yourself. It took me a long time to figure that one out.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 12:09 PM on November 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

When I went out on leave, not for mental health issues but for something I wanted to keep private anyway, I told my manager that I was "dealing with some chronic health issues and my doctor is taking me out on leave while he conducts my treatment".

You could answer potential questions with "oh, thanks for being concerned, I've been super stressed thinking about it and I'm just tired of talking about it or even thinking about it. Hopefully the treatments will help get this all resolved." You don't owe him any more than that, and hopefully he is savvy enough to take the hint.
posted by vignettist at 1:01 PM on November 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

If anyone asks, just reassure them that the doctors are working on it and expect you'll be able to return on X date. People are naturally curious, but they also learn pretty quickly to stop asking about medical stuff if a) it's clear that it seems like you'll be able to return (people catastrophize and think it's terminal cancer or something otherwise), and b) you don't make stuff up. Others did that when helping a friend, and when the "breathing issues due to mold" and "digestive stuff" took many months to heal (because it was really a mental health crisis), it was awkward. Mostly folks were just concerned, and willing to not ask more when it became clear it was a private issue that had a good prognosis. All welcomed him back without issue later, following HR's lead.

You can absolutely do this with a quick, honest, non-diagnostic email, and if HR can help you, let them.
posted by ldthomps at 1:23 PM on November 17, 2015

So my similar situation was kinda the inverse of yours, so I don't know how directly applicable my experience is to you, but I'll share in hope that it helps.

In my case, my mental health episode took the form of a fairly public, drawn-out-over-weeks, meltdown that mostly happened at work (also tech company). When I say my situation is the inverse, I mean that my manager caught me crying in my cube after everyone else had left on a Friday, and then the HR things happened, so I didn't really ever have the option of not disclosing.

My former workplace is not your current workplace. However, I was generally really shocked at how understanding, gentle, and basically decent my coworkers were. This is in a context in which I was telling ridiculously flimsy lies and causing other people a bunch of churn. There were a couple of people who were pretty clearly pissed and moderately distrustful of me but they were always super professional. After a couple months of kinda soft duty upon my return, I got responsibilities back. I'm not saying it was smooth as butter, but it was way smoother than before I went PHP.

Your context is not my context. I absolutely do not wish to suggest that everyone should disclose --- but it is an option. More often than not people mostly kinda sorta want to be decent. On a kinda trivial but kinda not note, it also makes the conversations about when you're going to be coming back much less stressful if you're not tap-dancing. And blah blah blah the usual bit about showing vulnerability making you closer to people that I mouth but don't really internalize.

That said --- if you do decide to preserve discretion with your supervisor, HR is indeed probably your best resource. Assuming there's a CA ADA-analog, means this is one of those places where "don't get the company sued" more or less lines up with your interests. Brevity and identification of the actually relevant information is your friend here --- actually relevant information boils down to "I plan to come back [you say definitely absolutely without caveats plan to come back until the day you submit your resignation], and currently it looks like that will be in such-and-such time frame."

Hang tough.
posted by PMdixon at 2:38 PM on November 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

If it helps, I can't imagine what "obvious indicators of surgery" would necessarily be. My manager was out for two weeks earlier this year; if she hadn't told me it was to have her gallbladder out I'd have assumed she was on holiday.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:14 PM on November 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

N'thing that HR should handle this for you.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 3:24 PM on November 17, 2015

The woman who sits in the cubicle next to mine went out on a 6 week mental health leave. I only know that's the reason because she told me. Nobody else knew, not even her boss. All he knew was, "medical leave". Truth is, nobody really seemed that interested. I heard a few people ask her boss, "Hey where's Jenny been?" and he'd say, "medical leave" and that was it. Most people are either sympathetic to someone who needs to take that time off, or basically unaware that they're out, or just don't really care.

If HR can't handle it for you, I'd say something to your boss like, "I'm taking a medical leave and will spare you the gory details. I plan to be back 5 weeks from today and will keep Ray in HR informed if that changes. He's handled all my paperwork and says everything is in order. Thanks for respecting my privacy, I really appreciate it."

I wish you all the best.
posted by Kangaroo at 3:34 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Your manager is not entitled to know about your health, mental or otherwise. vignettist's comment is spot on and I recommend it.

I went on medical leave for a physical illness caused 95% by stress & mental health issues related to work. I did not give my boss a reason. I was not even required to give HR a reason, just a letter from my doctor. Your health is private.

You sound so ashamed. But mental health is real, and deeply entwined with your physical self, and you deserve to take care of yourself. You deserve to fell good. You didn't choose it, you can't 'try' your way out of it, you just have to do whatever it takes to get better.

It was very hard for me to have so much unstructured time. I wish I had listened to more music and learned something new, other than how to not work with abusive jerks. I hope you feel better soon.
posted by theora55 at 3:44 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think other people have given you some good scripts for talking to your boss (via HR) and I think it might also be helpful to you to have some other scripts that you can use when you get back or if people contact you when you are away. I am a teacher and I have a student who is taking medical leave. I got informed by his adviser. I don't know the specifics, and it's not really my business. When he gets back I will probably say something like "Good to see you here" or something that is not weird, but a lot of people might be trying to be supportive and say stuff like "I hope you're feeling better" or other stuff that might be weird.

Have some sort of pat not-inviting-feedback response once you return that won't make you feel weird, won't put you in a deer-in-headlights position but also is a response (even if one that isn't very info-packed) something like "It's good to be back" or "I'm looking forward to being back at work" or something. You can use this with people who are being odd and people who are not being odd and only save the "That is none of your business" sort of stuff for your boss on the off chance that they are not totally supportive. Even supportive-minded people can sometimes screw up and say something that winds up awkward, so take everyone's assurances here to heart (it's not your boss's business, if they start prying, they need to stop that, it's very good for you to take care of yourself like this) and don't give yourself a hard time for this at all.
posted by jessamyn at 4:57 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

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