What to say to coworkers about upcoming stress leave?
January 24, 2023 8:19 AM   Subscribe

My departments culture is healthy. We are team oriented and most of us are pretty open with each other. (My larger workplace culture is very optics oriented and emotionally feels unsafe because of that.) My doctor was pretty insistent about my need to use FMLA for 3 weeks and then possibly more ad hoc/intermittent to recover from burnout. I can't decide how much to say and whether to be as apologetic as I want to be.

Apparently my internalized ableism is alive and well because I'm overwhelmed with shame for having to take time off and feeling very guilty about how the work will be distributed. My mother died in October and everyone was so kind and helpful. I think if they know something about the reason I'm so burned out they will be more understanding. But is it bad for my career to say so?

Someone else in our area but a different department had to take time off for a sudden medical event. She was pretty open about it, when she returned they welcomed her back at the monthly meeting, etc. But taking time off because you have a heart attack at work and taking time off because you have a special needs child whose school doesn't even really believe you, and when people hear you describe what is happening at home will just think you're a shitty parent, that just hits different.

I'm thinking maybe I'll just be vague? Say that my son is having complex medical issues that have been more overwhelming than I anticipated, and the stress of finding appropriate services has taken a toll? I do want to say something to my supervisor and my counterpart who will take on the bulk of my tasks. I'm just not sure what. I want to apologize for the burden they will have because of this situation. Is that ok? Am I somehow setting myself up for an unknown political problem at work by vaguely giving a reason behind my sudden 3 weeks off and apologizing for the extra stress it may put on them?

One of my coworkers knows what's been happening but she's in a different area and I can trust her to maintain my confidentiality.

Any suggestions for things I can say to myself to help me feel better about this? Because I just feel so much shame right now. I feel like a failure. My doc said she thinks I need to take time off and asked how long do I need and I said idk a week? She said a week isn't long enough for your body to recover from fighting fires constantly.

I'm so sad that I could not prevent things from getting to this point and feeling like it's my fault that I didn't cope better.
posted by crunchy potato to Work & Money (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"A sense that your job is terribly important is a sure sign of an impending nervous breakdown."

You’re overthinking this. Tell your coworkers that your home situation requires your full attention for a little bit and go take care of yourself and your family.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:24 AM on January 24 [38 favorites]

needing to take some time off is an appropriate and understandable reaction to a very stressful situation! you have done the best that you can with the tools and energy that you have and you are now utilizing another tool: FMLA leave.

i understand that you feel guilty, but please remind yourself that there is nothing to feel guilty about.

i love tell me no lie's language recommendation, and think it's perfect. i would also have an urge to say more to somehow prove that i actually need it, but you don't have to do that! "my home situations requires my full attention for a little bit" is enough and it's perfect.

you're going to be ok! it's really wonderful that you're doing this for yourself. i hope you do indeed get to have some rest.
posted by monster_a at 8:27 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

> Say that my son is having complex medical issues that have been more overwhelming than I anticipated, and the stress of finding appropriate services has taken a toll?

That seems like more or less a complete account with the right level (i.e. lack) of detail for workplace purposes. I would go with something very like that.

> feeling like it's my fault that I didn't cope better.

Sometimes this shit just happens - it can affect any one of us - it really isn’t your fault. I hope that the time off will help you to dislodge that feeling.
posted by Puppy McSock at 8:28 AM on January 24 [5 favorites]

You do not owe anyone an explanation for using FMLA. You do not even owe it to anyone, other than probably HR, to say you're taking FMLA. And you absolutely do not need to be apologetic.

If you feel you have to say something, use the script that Tell Me No Lies provided. That's all you need to do.
posted by Dolley at 8:28 AM on January 24 [13 favorites]

all business, no apology:

i have a serious illness. under a doctor's recommendation, I'll be taking x weeks off for treatment from ___ to ___. i'll return to work full time afterwards.

I'll need an hr contact to collaborate on my fmla documentation.

additionally, we have x days before i begin. let's agree on how to best split my workload and be sure high-priority items are at least in progress before then.

posted by j_curiouser at 8:29 AM on January 24 [4 favorites]

You can either say "medical leave" or "family leave" and that's all your coworkers need to know. It would likely be helpful to tell your direct team you'll be fully out for 3 weeks and then need to take intermittent leave following depending on the situation.

It's not necessary to apologize, but I think it's good to acknowledge this will be a burden on your coworkers. I was that coworker. However, due to her burnout she just disappeared for 4 weeks and logged back in one day pretending nothing happened. I wish she had been upfront with her intentions and coordinated in advance like you are, but sometimes that's not possible, especially with burnout. The family medical issues you mention are just another layer.

A possible script:
"I need to take family leave from Feb 1-22nd, and will likely have intermittent leave needs after that. {Optional: My son's medical issues have grown necessitating this effort.} Thank you for helping cover while I'm gone, I have left files and copies of important emails on the team server [link], as well as a list of contacts. I'll be directing my out of office to Sarah who will be the point person while I'm out."

And then, it would be very helpful if you can communicate with your boss and your backup the week before the leave ends to make plans for how you will be returning. Put your medical/family leave and your intermittent leave in your calendar. Your coworkers care a lot less about the details of your situation and really need to know how it impacts them and the business.
posted by Narrow Harbor at 8:37 AM on January 24 [7 favorites]

One of my coworkers took FMLA for six months to care for a family member with long Covid. That seems less detailed than your suggested statement so if you don’t want to disclose details you could say I need to care for my son. I have also had coworkers go on leave and just say “I’m on leave until x date.” Sometimes I found out about why, sometimes I didn’t.

No matter what they said, nobody thought they were failures and nobody felt bad about “picking up their slack” because we are all humans, we have unpredictable bodies, we have loved ones, the world is random, and we will all need that opportunity to take leave to care for needed stuff ourselves one day. Be well and be kind to yourself.
posted by holyrood at 8:38 AM on January 24 [7 favorites]

There is no need to apologize. You can be grateful and appreciative towards the people who will take on extra work, for sure. But you are not wronging them in any way. You are in fact helping them, by addressing the issue early and clearly, by communicating needs and timelines. (That's not to say your three weeks has to be sufficient - I hope you can extend if you need to.)

If you do want to say something explanatory, "I have to take some time off to deal with family health issues" should be absolutely sufficient for anyone. If a coworker told me that, I would not blink and I would not ask any questions - I would understand the matter to be private and personal, and would want to respect that.
posted by quadrilaterals at 8:40 AM on January 24 [10 favorites]

No one at your workplace is going to inquire into the medical issues of a child. You don't need to explain what those issues are, just say that they exist and take leave.

The way you are framing the issue--that your coworkers not only would somehow find out, they'd care enough to judge you that harshly--makes me think that there's some uncertainty and anxiety here about the child's treatment that you're displacing onto the coworkers.
posted by kingdead at 8:42 AM on January 24

Best answer: I don't think you need to disclose anything, and I wouldn't if I were you. Handwave a bit about medical issues (stress is a medical issue).

Right now, you have to keep moving to keep coping at work, so naturally your brain is like "keeping moving is best, keep coping, keep going, stopping is weak and counterproductive" but I guarantee you that once you've had a little bit of rest you will start to feel its value. You can't feel stopping right now because until you've got time to rest, you can't stop, so to keep going you have to believe in keeping going. That's an in-moment survival strategy, not a moral imperative.

Your feelings don't necessarily align with your values, with what's right and wrong, etc. You wouldn't judge a friend or a co-worker who needed some real down time like this.

(If you were a wealthy person in, eg, 1920, you would take a year to travel around the world! If you were in Germany in the 1980s, the doctor would prescribe a spa visit! The idea that you have to keep going or you're weak/bad/lazy is extremely culturally- and class-specific; it's not a transhistorical truth of the human condition.
posted by Frowner at 8:43 AM on January 24 [33 favorites]

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who, when they hear a co-worker say "I've got a lot of family shit going on at home", immediately want to know the details of that family shit; and people who, upon hearing that, realize that "a lot of family shit" is code for "things I don't want to talk about". If your department's culture truly is healthy, as you say, then most of them are the latter. And if you have co-workers who are the former, make up something graphic. I used to have a co-worker whose colon ruptured. People realized pretty quickly that they should just ask how he's doing and leave it at that. If anyone thinks you owe them an explanation, they deserve to be grossed out.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:51 AM on January 24

I'm on leave right now for similar but not same reasons, but caused by the workplace (NOT my team, the greatest people in the universe). I didn't get to say anything (except to my boss), it was just communicated that I was on leave. Therapy helped me work out everything I wanted to say to my coworkers at the time.
posted by avocet at 8:54 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

You don't have to tell anyone a thing, and you don't have to feel bad about it either. Taking leave is your legally entitled right, one of the few employee protections we have in this country, and you should take it when you need it. You need it.

Your explanation to everyone except your boss and HR is: "I will be on leave from [date] to [date], please contact [boss] in my absence."

Your explanation to your boss and HR is: "I will be taking family leave as advised by my physician from [date] to [date]."

You ask HR what documents they require and how they need you to file them so you can take your leave.

When you come back, if you want to, then you can discuss particulars--only if you want. Right now it is TOO MUCH and you should not and do not have to spend your valuable brain space figuring out the most perfect words to say.
posted by phunniemee at 8:54 AM on January 24 [4 favorites]

Best answer: when people hear you describe what is happening at home will just think you're a shitty parent
Only shitty people think this. Truly. I think this is a really terrible internal critique and not the voices of your coworkers here. And, even if someone did think this, in a healthy workplace, they are probably smart enough to keep this thought to themselves.

You'll be a better coworker when you're not super stressed at work, or when you are slightly less stressed.

Here are some mindsets (cognitive distortions?) that might be good to poke out and try to work through:
The idea that our value is as workers and, therefore, leaving work, even briefly, is a failing.
The idea that problems our kids have are a direct reflection of our skills as a parent.

The reason that unions and labor groups fought so hard for the very minimal family leave we have is so that we take it when we need it. Your doctor, an actual medical professional, is telling you to take it.

But I think what's going on is that you are so burnt out, you are catastrophizing. Staying at your workplace isn't going to mean you can focus and do your job, and you won't be able to take care of your family.

This is the solution, and you gotta try to let that shame go. What's happening in your family is no one's business, and you don't have to make up a reason to make it sound worse or legitimate.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:08 AM on January 24 [5 favorites]

At a previous job, one of my coworkers and I had a meeting scheduled to review some code and his boss came to the meeting to let me know that he had gone on leave and please catch her up instead on what needed to be done. He was gone for months. At some point another coworker - not accustomed to US privacy laws - asked why he was gone and the manager firmly responded he is on leave indefinitely, I will let you know when he is coming back.

One day he came back. Everyone made a point to welcome him back and say how much he was missed - because he was, and we'd been worried about him. If anybody knows now why he was gone, it didn't get passed around enough for me to hear it.

And that is how it should be.

Not just for him, not just for you, but for EVERYONE. Work is work, life is life, and none of us owe work any more information about our lives than might be required to make the appropriate arrangements, barring limited disclosure to a couple of people who have to sign off on it. This is an opportunity for you to promote this idea by simply living it. All you have to do here is nothing.

Trust your closest allies at work to know that you're taking leave because you urgently need to do so. If they're good people, they wouldn't even begrudge you if it was something totally frivolous - maybe you got a spot on Jeopardy! and fully intend to set a world-record-length winning streak, maybe you won an around-the-world cruise but had to sign an NDA until it's over. They are going to know that it's a big deal, whatever it is, and they're going to hope it works out okay for you, whatever it is.

Please remember that while you may have some people you care about at work, the entity that is your employer does not give a shit about you. They will lay you off in a second if they think your salary would be better off in someone else's pocket. If there wasn't any sort of federally-protected leave, you'd just have to quit or flame out spectacularly.

The shame you feel is a symptom of the burnout, and as you already have a plan for addressing the burnout you can just let that symptom be for now (certainly you can invite that symptom to fuck off into the sea, but in any case now is not the time to try to address or satisfy it). If you choose to disclose in advance that you will be on leave for a bit, you should leave your description at that: I will be on leave for a while so I am sharing my notes and files for the Widget Project and the Flarmble Committee with you. Ah, no, I'm not disclosing why at this time, and I am uncertain how long.

But you may also decide with your boss that you should just give them permissions to the Widgets and the Flarmbles and they will share on with whoever they delegate, and that you will simply not be at work one day and they will take it form there. This is part of your boss's job, because they would have to do this if you were laid off or abruptly ill or worse. (I was just laid off in the middle of three big projects 10 days before Christmas, they literally revoked all my access as I was being let go, they just had to figure out the stuff I was working on and I hope it was painful and the clients and my remaining coworkers were rightfully pissed off.) They can and will figure out what needs to be done, because that's just how it works.

Let the system work while you focus your energy on following your doctor's treatment.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:32 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

I took 12 weeks of FMLA last year due to stress/burnout/mental health. The only thing I said to anyone beyond HR and my manager was that I was out on medical leave.
posted by bajema at 10:07 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Nooooo don’t apologize or give any details. A family situation, a medical situation, a family medical situation, that’s all. They aren’t your friends (well, they might be, but in this context they’re coworkers.) You don’t have to justify it; your doctor has to justify it to HR but your coworkers are not in a position to judge whether this use is “justified” and giving them info grants them that position. Backfire city.

Don’t apologize for taking leave unless you also think you should apologize for taking a salary, or a coworker should apologize for having the flu. If they’re snowed under with work that’s management’s problem, not yours.
posted by kapers at 11:20 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

I have another framing for you to think about this. When I was in grad school, a professor said to us about job offers in our female-dominated profession, "Always ask for a raise. If you can't do it for yourself, if that feels too hard, then do it for the women who come after you, to make it easier for them."

So, if you're having a hard time feeling okay about your FMLA, think about the fact that using this important and essential benefit, and not focusing on the justification or narrative for your coworkers, you are making it easier for future caregivers in similar situations to take family leave without feeling bad for having to justify it.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:28 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Rather than apologizing, thank your colleagues who are taking over your work while you'll be on leave. You can tell them that you recognize the added workload on them and let them know that you appreciate it. This turns it into a thing they can feel good about for helping you out.
posted by heatherlogan at 12:30 PM on January 24

Fully agree that you don't need to and probably don't want to disclose any details and that will satisfy both your immediate circle of colleagues and the larger circles:

My departments culture is healthy. We are team oriented and most of us are pretty open with each other.

A healthy culture that supports openness will support your need to openly say what you are doing at work (taking a leave) while also being open about the very private nature of the reasons. ("I am taking a formal leave to address an important personal matter in my family that is urgent and time sensitive. Thank you so much for understanding and for the privacy.").

(My larger workplace culture is very optics oriented and emotionally feels unsafe because of that.)

An optics-oriented culture that feels unsafe to you will also by necessity want to receive a very visible message that you are taking an entirely appropriate leave for entirely appropriate reasons that, also for entirely appropriate reasons, you will not and should not and can not disclose in the workplace. ("I am taking a formal leave to address an important personal matter in my family that is urgent and time sensitive. Thank you for understanding and for the privacy.")

Maintaining privacy is part of a healthy workplace culture, is legally important as well in a workplace, *and* is part of
a healthy personal life for you and your child. Think about drawing this simple line of privacy at work as your very first initial step in taking your leave and healing.

No one who isn't safe should be allowed to draw judgements on you and your family's situation and this is especially true of people in the workplace. Not saying anything about why you are taking FMLA is something to be *proud* that you are doing, because it is the right professional, legal, personal, and healthy thing to do. In saying nothing beyond what is required you are actually taking your first step towards healing from burnout *and* protecting and demonstrating high professional standards for the workplace.

Anyone who reacts poorly or asks for more after you say this is not behaving professionally.

You, by contrast, already are by taking this leave and communicating it clearly and without detail.

Be proud of yourself, and go take care of yourself and your son without guilt or shame.
posted by desert exile at 1:10 PM on January 24

I highly recommend you read The Joy of Burnout. So many of the things you are feeling around this are common with burnout and until you actually stop, you probably don’t realise how much you need this time off.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:24 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thank you for asking this question; I'm wrestling with the same question and general discomfort with taking leave for burnout and a new mental health diagnosis. Thanks, too, for everyone's thoughtful answers.

I haven't yet submitted the paperwork, but wanted to give my boss an indication that I would be, because of my responsibilities and the time frame of the leave. I told him today something like "My doctors want me to take leave in order to properly treat a condition. I expect the leave to be at least two weeks and most likely four. I recognize that this will have an impact on you and the team, and want to work to transition my duties so that mission critical work can get done."

I think a lot of your turmoil is due to how overwhelmed you are - remember, if they're not properly staffed, if things fall apart when you're gone, if everything's on fire - it's not your fault. Your organization has decided to operate with the staff margins they have. Your organization has decided to overburden you (you didn't say that they are, but I bet they are) and contributed to your burnout. This is not your fault.

I recognize your user name and you have been through SO MANY CHALLENGES in the last year and beyond. You seem thoughtful, diligent, and generally kind, and you have been exhausted by what's demanded of you, and this is exactly what leave is for.

I'm saying all of this as much for myself as you. It's easier for me to be compassionate toward others than to myself; if it's the same for you, what would you say to your best friend if they brought this situation to you? How would you advocate for them? I know it's hard right now because you've been stretched so thin and navigating the taking of leave is going to take even a little more. But you know the effect that this has had on you - both your health and your performance, and your general ability to live a fulfilling life.

Another way to frame it is - are you actually effective at your job right now? I know I'm not. I'm difficult to deal with, frequently crying, frequently snappy, doing shoddy work. This isn't going to change without taking leave, much like a cramp won't improve if you keep running - you need to stop! Hobbling through the pain and hoping it'll magically pass won't work, and you'll be overall more effective and more of an asset to your org if you take this leave, recover, and come back fresher.

I really feel for you. It's hard to undo what American culture and capitalism has taught us. If you'd like to talk more with someone who's dealing with a similar problem and similar thoughts, please, please reach out.
posted by punchtothehead at 1:32 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

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