Medical privacy at work?
February 2, 2008 1:51 PM   Subscribe

I am a new college graduate (last June), a typical overachiever, and I landed one of those high-paying, high-stress, high hours analyst jobs at an investment bank in New York City. I am now seven/eight months in and struggling with some pretty serious depression.

The job is not necessarily the cause of the depression - it's been an issue in the past - but is clearly a trigger. The job is a bit of a dream job for me, though - I'm legitimately interested in what I am doing, not just in it for the money or exit opportunities like many of my colleagues (not that there's anything wrong with these motivations).

My depression is really impacting my ability to enjoy anything about life, though, I've visibly lost weight, and its getting to the point where I'm unable to function effectively at work. My question is not whether I should stick with the job - I haven't given enough information for you'll to make that determination, and I suspect I know what the answer would be based on this. Instead, my question is regarding my options about discussing this with someone from HR. Basically, my company has a policy where we are permitted to take up to 12 weeks ST disability for health problems. I'm interested into looking into this but am concerned about how taking time off would affect my relationship with my director/group, being perceived by others as "sick" when I return, and, not unimportantly, how taking extended sick time would affect my end-of-year bonus (paid in July). I would like to discuss these issues with my HR "contact person" before making a decision either way, but do not want my manager or group to know about it. If I disclose to my HR person that I'm having these problems and considering taking some time off, is she allowed to tell my boss? Or is medical information kept confidential? In other words, can I bring up these issues without being worried about it getting through to my boss? Obviously if I do end up deciding to take time off for medical reasons my boss will know about the situation at that point, but I'd like to have these issues addressed before I make a decision. Thanks for any advice. I can be contacted at my throwaway email address
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I am going to be quite blunt and say that taking three months off for depression after only six months of experience out of college is likely to get you either fired (worst case) or ignored for promotion/pay raises/bonus (best case). I'm not going to say your reasons aren't legitimate (that's up to you) or that they have a legal basis for doing what I think they'll do (they don't). However, the information will get to your director some way or another.

I think you're taking a leap you don't need to take. Most companies provide some sort of employee support program for exactly what you're talking about. If they don't, I'd hope they have some sort of support for psychological evaluation in their health benefits. Take advantage of those first. You don't need to take 3 months off to try them out to start. You very well might be able to solve your problems while avoiding hurting your career. This is the sort of thing that you should talk to HR about. Moreover, they should be very receptive to such questions. I also think they're much more likely to keep such conversations completely confidential. Talking to them about support is normal - talking to them about taking 3 months off without any previous psychological evaluation isn't.
posted by saeculorum at 2:04 PM on February 2, 2008

Personally, I wouldn't trust HR to keep a secret. HR will sell you out in a second because, quite frankly, they know which way their bread is buttered.
posted by survivorman at 2:06 PM on February 2, 2008

i don't think HR will keep the secret. i don't think your co-workers will care much if you take some time off, but i think it will negatively impact your career. especially if you are a woman--where the expectation is for you to get married in five years anyway and opt out of the workforce for ten years to have your kids and get them into school.

i sort of think that if you feel you need three months off now, you might as well quit and find another job that doesn't trigger your depression. because the job won't change--taking time off now will help you heal from this current bout of depression, but if you come back to the same environment in three months, what makes you think it won't trigger it again?

obviously you know more about your situation than any of us do, though.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:16 PM on February 2, 2008

I think at a big, public investment bank HR wont rat you out, but from your bosses point of view, there is no possible reason to take three months off. If you were a super genius or big producer maybe. If you lost your arm in a tragic accounting accident your standard wall street boss would give you a $0 bonus at the end of the year and expect you to quit.
posted by shothotbot at 2:25 PM on February 2, 2008

I would talk to a therapist or psychiatrist and see what their prognosis is and see what suggestions they make. There's no need to be setting off alarms at HR until you know what, exactly, you will need to get better. I think that a professional can help you come up with a good plan for treating your depression AND dealing with your work situation.

My personal opinion (and I am not a therapist but I have been severely depressed) is that if you take 3 months off of work it is likely to make you more depressed, not help. Your job might be keeping you relatively healthy, especially if you enjoy the work. It provides a routine, familiar faces, motivation, a sense of purpose, and a lot of other things you might lose if you quit going. That's why a lot of people become depressed after they lose their jobs or retire.

Good luck!
posted by sondrialiac at 2:26 PM on February 2, 2008 [5 favorites]

Perhaps it would make sense just to take two weeks off or so? You could investigate therapists in that time, and just take a break.
posted by sweetkid at 2:28 PM on February 2, 2008

I agree with survivorman and thinkingwoman--I wouldn't go to HR looking for advice. They're just administrators whose job, generally, is to ensure compliance with various laws and regulations, and make sure the company doesn't get sued. They're not guidance counselors. You sound like you need some sort of psychotherapist or psychiatrist (IANAD, so my telling you to see a doctor is not medical advice--you'll need a doctor to tell you to see a doctor, which I am not).

By all means, take the time if you and a doctor determine that's what's right for you. If you go that route, you probably should figure out a plan with the doctor (and maybe an employment lawyer) first, then go to HR with your proposal. But I don't think things will ever be the same at work thereafter. We had a person go on leave, come back, go on leave again I think two or three weeks later, and was ultimately let go, just yesterday, in fact.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:31 PM on February 2, 2008

I would talk to a therapist or psychiatrist and see what their prognosis is and see what suggestions they make. There's no need to be setting off alarms at HR until you know what, exactly, you will need to get better. I think that a professional can help you come up with a good plan for treating your depression AND dealing with your work situation.

I was just about to write the same advice.
posted by ericb at 2:42 PM on February 2, 2008

Just ask yourself what Gordon Gecko would do to an employee facing this kind of situation!

I like the idea of going to a therapist/doc first to get your bearings.
posted by Salvatorparadise at 2:42 PM on February 2, 2008

I have to concur with not going to HR. In the real world bad news pretty much ignores HR policies. Even if no one talks taking 12 weeks off during the first year of an analyst program without either a parent dying or undergoing chemo pretty much guarantees that you are going to be off the promotion track, if not off the payroll. I'd say forget HR and get a doctor on your own. See if you fake a cold (this is cold and flu season) to cadge a day or two off as a stopgap.
posted by frieze at 2:43 PM on February 2, 2008

Legally speaking, your HR department should keep that sort of info confidential...Of course, that's the theory. In practice, there could be a gazillion things involved, such as 'your HR contact' being mates with your boss, for example (as survivorman mentioned).

But then again, you should be able to talk about these things instead of suffering behind your desk and not knowing your rights. Bearing your legal rights and the fact you want to sort out this situation, go have a chat with your HR department. One obvious thing you could do is launch legal action against the company, if HR leaks info about your medical condition to your boss.

After you find out what your options are, have an honest chat with your manager. If he/she is professional and respects you, the matter will be kept confidential, as your colleagues don't really need to know exactly what is going on with you -- unless you want to tell people -- you can be as vague as you like, just say you are taking medical leave and that's it. Perhaps you just need to take some time off, seek some good specialist advice and think things through. Good luck!
posted by heartofglass at 2:51 PM on February 2, 2008

FWIW -- the highly-charged and stressful environment in which you work has a high rate of mental health issues. You are not alone. I have had a number of Wall Street friends and acquaintances who faced a similar situation as you. Each sought counseling/therapy.

Casualties of Wall Street: An Assessment of the Walking Wounded is by Catalyst Strategies Group, Inc.

CSG is one of the firms which provide services to Wall Street analysts, brokers, traders, lawyers, etc. The firm was founded by Dr. Alden Cass, PhD whose research has indicated "thirty-eight percent met the criteria for subclinical major depression, while 23 percent were clinically diagnosed with major depression—shocking, considering only 7 percent of men are currently depressed in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Mental Health."*
posted by ericb at 2:57 PM on February 2, 2008

Contrary to other suggestions, go to your HR group directly. They will keep what you say in confidence and not tell your direct manager the reasons, if you want it that way.

I manage a large department in a Fortune 500 company and several times, I have had staff go out on leave and HR will not tell me what's going on. Afterwards, the employees have told what was up (once for jail time for DUI, once for drug rehab).

Going out will affect the perceptions your boss & co-workers will have about you. You should know, they will assume the worse. Yes, it will affect their bonus considerations. Overall, it won't be helpful to your career if you are on disability. That's simply the truth in high power career tracks.

My recommendation would be to talk with HR, discuss the situation, and consider professional counseling. You don't mention in your post if you are seeing a counselor now. My only bout of depression was 20+ years ago in college. Seeing a counselor at the time made all the difference. I didn't take an medication for depression, but family & friends have and have seen significant improvement quickly.

You've done great by recognizing there's a problem. Many are not as brave or smart to do that.

Good luck.
posted by Argyle at 3:15 PM on February 2, 2008

Book a week off, assuming you've not already used all your paid vacation days already. Go to your doctor, get some medication and arrange some therapy.

Anti-depressants were invented for precisely this reason - so people can get on with their lives, therapy is a long-term project, you need to feel better now (or within a reasonably practical timeframe). Some of these new medications work really fast, granted they're not guaranteed to work (they never did for me but that's a different story) but its worth a try and certainly better than booking 3 month's sick leave.

Chances are some medication will improve your condition enough to get on with your life as you're clearly not so sick you can't function (eg. you are still getting up, getting dressed and going to work). In my experience sitting at home in your PJs watching daytime TV is the worst possible treatment for depression but a week off to get yourself together could do you the world of good.

I'm self-employed and when I'm going through a rough patch and can't get anything done, sometimes I just need to accept that and take some time off, rather than trying to struggle through it, taking way longer than it should to accomplish anything and making the problem worse, especially when I beat myself up over not being able to get anything done.
posted by missmagenta at 3:33 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

HR won't rat you out -- because they were never on your side to begin with, to have a anything to rat from. They are first, last and always employed for the company's interest, not yours. It is worth trying to avoid getting onto your file any of "depression", "stress" or "extended sick leave".

The advice above looks good. Go and find an expert in treating depression, and work out short-term and long-term strategies. There can be a huge amount if stress in the first six months of a first "real" job, especially if you have moved cities as well. You may be able to move smoothly forward with just a bit of help. Act now -- don't leave it and let things drift worse.

Longer-term, it could be that this is not the job and life-style for you. Don't let yourself be trapped by the thinking of an over-achiever -- "I have never been beaten yet". Taking an adult decision to look around for something better is not failure -- it is successfully making progress towards a satisfying life. Weigh things up carefully, and investigate how you can use this good job as a launching point into something that is a better fit. There are plenty of people like you looking to find a better second job, where "better" is about their lifestyle, not just the biggest paypacket. Employers will be glad to hire a high-flyer who has assessed their priorities carefully. Plenty of first jobs turn out to be not as ideal as they seemed.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:46 PM on February 2, 2008

Ask your HR person in writing if there is someone you can talk to confidentially about a minor health issue. This should protect you. TRust me, they seriously worry about liabilities.

Can you try a shorter break and get some counseling first? I don't like to tell people this, but depression is very common in the first year or two in the workforce. It's hard to give up a school calendar with prescribed vacations, holidays and the finality of semesters or terms. You need help because you are burning out. But three months is a lot of time, and your absence will be noticed by all your colleagues.

It sounds like you need a professional to help you figure out the best course of action. If HR doesn't help, please find a doctor. Good luck.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:55 PM on February 2, 2008

I too wonder what you would do with three months off; perhaps I'm missing something. But good for you to recognize you need to do something seriously different.

If I were you, I'd call in sick next week, find a therapist, and make a plan with them. Perhaps you can get an ongoing accommodation like working four 9-hour days and a half day on Friday for therapy, or something else that would be less disruptive to your work.
posted by salvia at 4:42 PM on February 2, 2008

My advice (totally unqualified, except that I've been in similar high-stress, long-hours situations) is probably counter-intuitive. Spend more time and energy. Only spend it on your own life, not on work. Keep doing what you're doing at work and also take a martial arts class or learn ballroom dancing or something. Make a garden. Something with visible, lasting effects. Yes, you're too tired and don't have enough time. Figure it out. If all you do is your job, no matter how much you like it, you'll burn out. You are not your job.
posted by ctmf at 4:46 PM on February 2, 2008

I am heavily nthing the advice here. I went on FMLA for three months in 2004 for depression. This meant I cut my workweek from 40 hours to 32, but HR knew I was going through some shit. I was fired a (very uncomfortable) year later.

Follow everyone else's advice and you should be fine.

Good luck! I hope you find the relief you need.
posted by princesspathos at 5:34 PM on February 2, 2008

Agreed that you can't necessarily trust that HR will keep your confidence. They are supposed to, but there are always backchannel ways to get information across if it is desired. And at worst, some HR people are there because they like to gossip. I've seen it. Best to keep all communication with them on a need to know basis, and go on the assumption anything you tell them isn't private. Just to be on the safe side.

I'd get with a mental health group (docs and therapists who work together in the same practice/office) to figure out a plan for treatment and coping.

Getting into the full-time+ work world can be a drag. Not only do you have less time to socialize, you also have less time to get your own shit done, and then suddenly there is what seems to be an insurmountable mess. But it's not, the depression just wants you to think it is.
posted by gjc at 6:25 PM on February 2, 2008

Get a new job, seriously.

Nothing will have changed once you come back. It doesn't sound like there has been any major trigger or life event that you need time to deal with, your job is ridiculously stressful. You thought this would be your dream job, your dream job has made you miserable so this clearly isn't it, time to start looking for a new one. If you are really concerned about your career I would try to tough it out until July.

You probably need counseling and it certainly wouldn't hurt, especially in the interim, but seriously sometimes people are depressed because they have a chemical imbalance and sometimes people are depressed just because their lives are miserable. You may fall into both categories, but you can't fix the latter one simply by making an appointment every week and taking some pills. Doing that may help you take the steps to change your life, but alone it won't change much.

You're too young to be having a midlife crisis, stop doing this to yourself, go out and figure out what really makes you happy, this isn't it.
posted by whoaali at 8:58 PM on February 2, 2008

I agree with the advice that you not go to HR. People in HR don't want what's best for you. They want what's best for the company. I haven't found them to be loyal or discreet.

Does your company have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? They will keep things confidential, and they have training to help employees with all sorts of problems.

You could also, as someone else mentioned, take a week or two off to clear your head.

Good luck. Your job sounds like hell.
posted by mintchip at 3:21 PM on February 3, 2008

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