Negotiating leave of absence for COVID-adjacent mental illness
May 17, 2020 1:26 PM   Subscribe

I am in Washington State, US. I live alone and have been sheltering in place since early March. My company has transitioned everyone to full time remote work and I have a managerial role. This extended period of isolation and restricted activity has caused my mental health to decline badly enough that I can no longer adequately perform my job duties. My company is offering some COVID-related reduced-schedule and leave options and I am considering taking a leave of absence. How can I effectively negotiate this?

I have a history of major depressive disorder and all signs point to my being in danger of (or already in) another MDD episode. My ability to adequately perform my work responsibilities is clearly compromised. I estimate I have about 50%-60% of my usual capacity available, and the interpersonal (vs. technical) and managerial aspects of my work are especially affected.

I would like to maintain both my mental health and my professional reputation. My company is explicitly offering unpaid leave as an option for mitigating personal/family impact of COVID-19. I am considering whether I can take advantage of that to just focus on preserving my sanity rather than trying and failing to keep up with work in adverse circumstances. As an employee with less than 1 year of tenure certain kinds of protected medical/family leave are not available to me, however, I can tolerate a couple months of income interruption.

If I choose to pursue taking a leave of absence how can I best understand and negotiate options with my manager and HR? I take my professional responsibilities seriously and don't want to just drop everything on the floor. As a relatively new employee I also don't have a lot of history or positive reputation built up at this company, and I am conscious of how quickly good reputation can be lost. Ideally I can avoid a big career setback as well.


Am I seeing a therapist? Yes.
Am I getting psychiatric support? Yes.
Do I know that HR is not my friend? Yes.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you may find effective reassurance from a consultation with an attorney (MeFi Wiki) who has a practice that includes a focus on employment law issues, including so you can review not only your options for negotiation but also your potential eligibility for unemployment insurance under the expanded benefits programs (National Employment Law Project) and other legal protections (JAN, e.g. the ADA).

Personally, from a nonlegal advice perspective, I think it reflects a strong commitment to the organization for you to consider your current capacity and how to take proactive steps to minimize disruption that might otherwise occur if you try to push yourself too hard by not taking the offered leave of absence. It also sounds like you have an employer that is encouraging this type of self-care, which may make this process a lot easier to navigate. Whether you should share your protected health information with your employer is a question that I encourage you to discuss with an attorney who has experience with this type of negotiation and can specifically advise you on your options and your privacy rights.
posted by katra at 2:34 PM on May 17, 2020

Also, the Unemployment Law Project is a "not-for-profit law firm in Washington State that is established to provide advice, education, advocacy, services, and representation to unemployed workers, to defend the rights and benefits of workers and unemployed people, to advise workers regarding benefits, and to prevent economic insecurity among Washington’s working population" that offers a free Telephone Helpline, including for questions about eligibility for unemployment benefits, and they are offering a live webinar tomorrow for the general public, as well as recordings from past webinars on their website, along with other informational resources.
posted by katra at 4:41 PM on May 17, 2020

I think you should definitely take the leave if you can, but they may have a narrower definition of COVID impacts- what does the policy explicitly say? At most companies that I've seen offering COVID leave, they're talking about those who are infected or taking care of those who are infected. Is your company offering something different?
posted by pinochiette at 8:34 PM on May 17, 2020

Look at your policy very carefully. If all it says is that your company is offering "unpaid leave as an option for mitigating personal/family impact of COVID-19," your request needs to look like this:

"I am requesting unpaid leave from 5/20/2020 until 7/1/2020 to mitigate the personal/family impact of COVID-19, per our policy. Please let me know how to arrange this with human resources so as to cause minimal disruption of business operations."

... or whatever your dates are. Look closely at the policy. Does it require you to furnish a doctor's note or a reason? (Hopefully not.) Does it protect your job? (Hopefully.) Are there circumstances under which this policy would not apply to you? (Hopefully not.) Are there time limits in the policy? (Double check.) Gently push back against anyone who wants more than you are required to supply.
posted by juniperesque at 9:43 AM on May 18, 2020

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