Exiting high stress/travel job in the midst of mental health crisis
September 6, 2018 11:15 AM   Subscribe

It’s been a tough couple weeks for our household. Looking for advice on the most professionally and personally safe way for my spouse to leave a high stress job with frequent last-minute travel. We’re lucky enough to have several options, including medical leave, so I’ve provided many details inside, TLDR question at the end.

My husband works as a management/tech consultant at a large multinational company. He’s also got an anxiety disorder. Over the past several years he’s been doing this, he’s had variable amounts of travel; long stretches where he’s working remotely from our house, other periods where he leaves every Sunday afternoon for a client site and comes back late Thursday night for months. Overall, 80% travel with 10-14 hour days is the norm for this job, but it’s been variable as his team works on landing more clients. When his anxiety’s decently managed, or even when it’s less well controlled but his life is very structured and predictable, he’s extremely high functioning. And to be honest, he’s gotten increasingly good at working through high levels of anxiety in this job. He just got a great performance review one week after this crisis precipitated, and it’s unclear if his managers or coworkers are even aware he’s having issues right now.

The breaking point: Three weeks ago, he got a a last minute call to start on a new project. New client, new coworkers, new topic he wasn’t familiar with. I knew he was stressed out and not sleeping well, but apparently that was accompanied by constant imposter syndrome, panic attacks, trapped feelings, etc. He called me halfway through the week having suicidal ideation for the first time ever. I’ve known him for 17 years, and anxiety’s been a constant in his life, but this level of shit is new. In the thick of it, he couldn’t see any options that weren’t staying at this miserable job, quitting immediately and never coming back, or killing himself. Fuck.

We talked through making a plan to stay safe on the phone, and I got him to leave a bit early the next day, get on a plane, and come home. The day after I took him to a walk-in crisis center, got a referral to a psychiatrist who could see him the next business day, and convinced him, under much duress, to take a week of sick leave. He did that, finally got some sleep, and started sounding more like the guy I’ve been married to for ten years and less like a distant panicked automaton. The pdoc tripled his SSRI prescription and gave him a benzo to help manage anxiety in the short term.

We spend the week off talking about all the options he couldn’t see from inside the panic: giving notice, taking short term disability/FMLA, talking to his line manager, applying for new jobs, pairing medication with regular therapy again to help develop some better coping skills. Getting a new job is clearly going to be the right move: both the lifestyle and baked in uncertainty of his current role are shitty even when he’s not in crisis. He looks at some job openings and we talk about what he might want to do next.

The drugs heled, and being away from work helped more, so he goes back to work after a week. First days back are stressful, but he’s working remotely and manages. In a few more days he doesn’t need the benzos. Applies for half a dozen job openings, then ten more last weekend. The suicidal ideation is no longer in play, just continued intrusive but dismissible thoughts related to the crisis. He’s still waking up with a feeling of panicky dread each morning, primarily because every day at this job has the potential for unexpected shit he can’t control. But all of this seemed like generally good news and good signs for the meds working and being able to cope while looking for an exit.

Then yesterday he wakes up to an email from one of his bosses asking him to call her ASAP. At first it looks like they just need help editing a document, then suddenly they’re asking him to get on a plane to fly to the other side of the country for the next two days. He doesn’t feel like he can say no, because anxiety, but also because constant and sudden travel is the nature of the job, so he packs clothes and benzos and leaves for the airport. He tells me it’ll be shitty, but better than last time, and that he’ll make it back home okay. But the travel means he’s got to cancel and reschedule his follow up appointment with the psychiatrist tomorrow, by the time his flight lands, he’s clearly back in a very bad place mentally. He’s still safe and we’re both freaking out but dealing in the short term. It’s the mid-term where we need some advice.

TLDR question time. Shit is bad right now, but we’re lucky enough to have several options to change his work situation:

1. Quit job outright, find a new job when not dealing with travel eating all his time and pushing him into crisis.
Pros: Definitely the personally safest option. The unemployment in our metro area is under 3%. We have a large emergency savings cushion and could handle 12 months of unemployment without touching retirement savings.
Cons: Standard job finding advice counsels against this and he already has an employment gap from late 2010 to mid-2012, though his resume's otherwise great. Also, even his baseline, non-crisis level of anxiety is largely incompatible with “get out there and network!” style job hunting.
Finally, he could and should start intensive therapy, which is more doable when not traveling but not the most compatible with we-just-cut-our-household-income-by-65%. Still, we could afford this option if we needed to.
2. Take advantage of working at large multinational to pursue some kind of leave, then find a new job. Spouse is unconvinced that his anxiety qualifies for short term disability/FMLA because the worst of it is so situational. I’m pretty sure we could make it work, and obviously it’d result in less of a financial hit, but I’m less sure if this is a good career move in terms of keeping the great relationships he’s got right now with his coworkers/managers/future job references. His employer also offers an unpaid leave of absence while maintaining benefits, but I’m not sure what the restrictions on this are.
3. Look for new job while trying to somehow not travel in current job. Spouse thinks this is functionally untenable, because everyone travels and travel’s the nature of the gig. I suspect he could force his employer to not have him travel in the short term using FMLA or something, but it still may not be advisable for maintaining professional connections, etc.
4. Look for new job while gutting it out a bit longer in current job, assuming he can make a plan with his doctor to stay safe. We’ve got 10 days of vacation scheduled starting Sept 27th, and in any other situation I’d say stick it out through then, apply to more things, and let the drugs kick in some more, but everything’s suddenly more crisis-y than I’m used to here.

I’m struggling to counsel him on these options, and he’s struggling to think clearly, so I’m looking for advice. I suspect he’d like to just quit and be done with it, and that may be what ends up happening, but neither of us have experience navigating mental health leave. I feel like we should look into it more, but don’t want to push him to drag out a shitty situation. So I'd appreciate any thoughts, especially from folks who've been in similar situations. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Can he talk to his psychiatrist about what the psychiatrist would recommend? They may have ideas about ADA accommodations and such that he could ask for and that the psychiatrist could basically prescribe (though the employer would have some leeway in figuring out if the accommodations were "reasonable," given the job requirements/limitations). This would require outing himself to his bosses, but presumably any leave would as well. Might be a less drastic option, and bringing the psychiatrist (or a therapist) into the conversation might help open up some new ideas, too.
posted by lazuli at 11:27 AM on September 6, 2018

(Assuming you are in the US) Stress leave is absolutely a thing. My GP was able to take me out on stress leave, and I can't see a reason why a pdoc couldn't easily take hubby out on a 90day leave. If not have the pdoc confer with hubby's GP.

With rest, good nutrition (you didn't mention if he is eating well while traveling but if he's human I suspect not), maybe a tweak of the meds, maybe some therapy, he will be mentally clearer and may then be able to apply for new jobs while on leave. Please don't let him quit outright. Please don't let him dismiss the ability to go out on leave without at least investigating the option.

ETA: Stress leave is a medical leave, and no one would need to know why he is going out except "I'm taking a medical leave at the advice of my doctor".
posted by vignettist at 11:30 AM on September 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Does his place of work have jobs that don't require the travel? Some kind of sideways move? Considering he has just had a great review they may want to keep him.
posted by chr at 11:32 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

If it were me, I would tell my employer that I am having medical issues that require me to work no more than 40 hours per week with no travel, and see what they suggest. They may reassign him, which would give him some space to look for a new position elsewhere if he doesn't want to stay with the company. Or they may push him out, but probably without the hard feelings there would be if he inexplicably quit. It sounds like they're happy with him and would give him a good reference, which will help as he's looking for something new.

The reason I wouldn't go with the option of requesting leave is because I'd find it psychologically stressful to still be connected with and having to deal with a company I feel a desperate urgency to escape. I'd be able to suck it up and work at a less stressful position for a bit for the sake of my long term career, but not go on leave with plans to quit without come back. YMMV.
posted by metasarah at 11:38 AM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

You'll need to review his specific employment information to know what his options are; they will be company-specific. FMLA, however, is for the care of others, not for your own illness. That is what disability, if he has it, is for. Whether or not he will be deemed to be qualified on the basis of a panic disorder is unclear, especially if he's generally been successfully going to work. Whether he would be eligible for benefits during various kinds of leave and on what basis (e.g., whether he has to pay the full cost) will, again, be company-specific and should be information you already have somewhere.

You have to be a little hard-headed and cynical about this, I think. Companies claim to be supportive in these situations but so often aren't. I would definitely not assume any kind of "stress leave" is available. Further, any medical leave on this basis in a high-pressure industry like this is bound to have some negative effect on his reputation, whatever HR says. Taking a regular unpaid leave of absence that terminates in him quitting for another job may also burn some bridges, although that depends--I think people tend to anticipate that as a possible outcome.

Honestly, given your description of your financial situation, I think quitting outright has a lot to recommend it, assuming you have included COBRA payments in your calculations or he can use your medical insurance. People get fed up and quit that kind of job all the time. It doesn't raise any questions about mental stability. It also sounds like it would be a lot easier for your husband to interview (and, you know, live!) if he's not being constantly being thrown into a state of panic by work, not to mention having to deal with the logistics of interviewing around a travel schedule. Since he will presumably be looking for a job with less travel, it will be extremely easy to explain to potential employers why he left--after [x] years, he was tired of the constant and unpredictable travel, so he's looking for a job that's a better fit. That's very plausible and understandable.

Good luck to you both. I've seen a fair number of people get chewed up by this kind of job (including one dude who literally went to Vegas one long weekend and never came back!). It takes a lot of courage to draw the line and say "No more."
posted by praemunire at 12:02 PM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Apologies if this is too obvious, but do you have access to his team handbook? Usually hr at these kinds of companies write pages and pages of policies that will explain your best options for 2.

For what it’s worth, I have seen colleagues take mental health based leave (both FMLA or unpaid personal leave) and in the SF tech scene this doesn’t have to affect his relationships/future references. Sure, if he falls off the planet with no explanation, they’ll probably resent that. But if he explains that it’s a medical thing, and follows up with them personally later, when he’s in a better place, the relationships can still be salvaged.

And to be honest, from the perspective of someone who gives references, I wouldn’t really care if someone did option 1 vs option 2. Neither would immediately mean a bad reference, but both would require serious transparent follow-up to ensure a good reference.
posted by tinymegalo at 12:02 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

FMLA, however, is for the care of others, not for your own illness.

That is incorrect. From the Department of Labor (emphasis mine):

Eligible employees are entitled to:

Twelve workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for:
  • the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth;
  • the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child within one year of placement;
  • to care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition;
  • a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job; [...]

I would absolutely look into FMLA or some other type of long-term leave as a first option.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:16 PM on September 6, 2018 [11 favorites]

Finally, he could and should start intensive therapy, which is more doable when not traveling but not the most compatible with we-just-cut-our-household-income-by-65%. Still, we could afford this option if we needed to.

For what it's worth, a lot of partial hospitalization programs (spend the day in group and individual therapy, go home at night and sleep in your own bed) take insurance. Programs like that vary widely in quality, but the ones that require private pay and have extra-fancy brochures aren't necessarily any better than the rest.

If this is a style of treatment that appeals to you guys, don't rule it out on financial grounds. Ask for recommendations in your area, see if your insurance will cover any, and — as others are recommending — use medical leave so your husband has a job to come back to if he wants it.

On the FMLA-vs-disability question: Under FMLA, your employer has to give you leave for medical stuff, but they don't have to pay you during it. If you have disability insurance, that will make up the lost wages (or some percentage of them), so that you'll effectively get paid leave, though your "paycheck" will be coming from the insurance company. If you don't have disability insurance, you'll end up with unpaid leave.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:07 PM on September 6, 2018

Have the doctor order a medical limitation of "no travel". Since this is incompatible with his job, the implementation of this restriction would likely be to go on short term disability leave. If your husband is medically unqualified to carry out a duty of his job then short term disability leave is 100% an option. It might be as easy as submitting to the employer/insurer the length of leave faxed on a psychiatrist's letterhead.

I have been on medical leave for depression and anxiety before, in my current job even. It has limited my promotion potential and made high stress jobs not an option. These are desirable side effects to me. Otherwise the leave time has come and gone and nobody remembers it a year later. Take the leave if you can get it.
posted by crazycanuck at 2:19 PM on September 6, 2018

He can just quit. There is no stigma at all to quitting a job that requires 80% travel, people do it all the time. All he has to tell his boss is that the travel is no longer doable for your family. I guarantee he/she has heard it lots of time and won't give it a second thought. It happens in my field all the time. He is still free to apply to other jobs at the same company after quitting this one.

No job is worth this kind of unhappiness.
posted by fshgrl at 2:31 PM on September 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm going through something similar. My role also has frequent travel, unpredictable workload & conflicting deadlines. Right now, I've been back for three weeks after taking a couple of months on sick leave, for similar anxiety-related reasons.

Based on my experience, option 2 is a good one. No-one in my organisation has been anything other than understanding & sympathetic & accommodating. If your husband has good relations & trust with his management chain, now's his chance to use that in his favour.
posted by rd45 at 6:21 AM on September 7, 2018

If there are still things he can do at work without the travel at work (without making things worse for him), one way to preserve the relationships at work would be to say "I've had a health issue come up that's been made a lot worse by travel, especially on short notice. I know that's part of this job, but I need to not travel for X time to figure out treatment options and see how they work. Would you prefer I do X and Y from my home location, or would it make sense for me to take a leave entirely?"

Have a sense of dates for how long figuring out options might take (at least through the vacation, I'd guess, but in coordination with his doctor) and have a form from the doctor ready if the handbook's clear on what it needs to contain.

If they're swamped, chances are really good they'd rather have him available for some parts of it (and consult by whatever technology tools are in use) rather than totally gone.

And that gives him a little breathing space to figure out what the next step looks like, and them a little space to figure out what they need, and a bit of time to help transition things, which helps with the long-term choices. If he goes back and says "I've tried some things, and fundamentally, it's the travel on short-notice that's an issue, and I know that's a part of this role." then they can move on from there. Any future employer is going to understand "Can't do 80% travel anymore."
posted by jenettsilver at 10:49 AM on September 7, 2018

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