Taylor Tobin

Taking time off from work to address physical ailments or handicaps happens often enough to (generally) avoid the burden of stigma. But when it comes to mental health leave, many people hesitate to use it.

While the Americans With Disabilities Act does require employers to offer accommodations for workers addressing mental health concerns, it’s still easy to make excuses for staying at work in these situations. Even if you do take a sabbatical, it can be daunting to start a job search afterwards. Fairygodboss recently spoke with three women who returned to the working world after taking mental-health leaves, and they offered great advice to anyone considering the same.

Stay focused on the future and work to rebuild the career you want in a time frame that makes sense for you.

After losing her fiancé in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center on 9/11, NYC psychotherapist and former corporate trainer Karen opted for a two-month mental health sabbatical to contend with the shock and grief of this tragedy. Karen used this time to take stock of her fast-changing world and to take necessary steps to reclaim her life while still allowing herself the opportunity to mourn and reflect. “I went to NJ to stay with family and started bereavement therapy and joined a support group. I also spent time with family and friends, focused on finding another NYC apartment I could live in by myself, and [let myself] not think about work,” Karen told Fairygodboss.

When she felt prepared to return to work in November 2001, Karen used open and honest communication to assert her needs to her bosses and co-workers. “I stayed in touch with my boss [throughout my leave] and was honest about when I felt ready to return. Fortunately, I was able to return to my position on a part-time basis, [which helped me] to ease back into everyday life again,” Karen explained. “I let people know at work that I was still not totally okay, but that they could [feel free to] ask me about it. I took full lunch breaks and walks as needed. [I made the decision to prioritize] my well-being as I readjusted.“

Karen’s determination to treat her own self-care as a crucial task helped her transition back into her workflow, and she offers the following advice to women seeking to go back to work after temporary mental-health leave: “Be honest with your bosses and co-workers about how you are doing and what you need, educate them on [your struggles], and remember that you are entitled to privacy in the workplace. If you are interviewing for a new job, do not be ashamed and do not feel that you have to share details; [telling prospective employers that] you needed time to take care of yourself and deal with a personal matter is sufficient. Take time to do things you enjoy, allow yourself to have bad days, and carve out time to see a therapist or join a support group.”

Be honest with yourself about your triggers and give yourself permission to be selective about potential positions.

Job hunting can be overwhelming even under the most favorable circumstances. When mental-health leave enters the equation, plenty of workers struggle with their transition back into the career market. How much do you have to disclose? Will potential bosses take (unfair) issue with the reason behind your sabbatical?

Mary Beth, an Illinois-based marketing strategist and copywriter, draws from her own experiences with anxiety to provide advice to clients considering taking their own mental-health work breaks. “Know your triggers,” she reminds her clients.  “What triggers your mental health issues? Lots of noise? Too many people? The inability to work from home? Too many deadlines? Make a list of your potential triggers, and apply for jobs that will not trigger you on a daily basis.”

Even in this auspicious economy, it can feel counterintuitive and “high maintenance” to filter jobs out of your search that don’t meet certain standards. But when your mental health depends on a level of career flexibility, it’s worth taking the extra time to find a job that truly suits your needs. “Take the time to find a good fit. Don't be in a rush. Define your expectations in a job, and find a job that meets these expectations. This will increase the chances of sticking with your new job in general,” Mary Beth told Fairygodboss.

Know your rights and be willing to assert yourself.

Because society’s grievous stigmas around the topic of mental health continue to be prevalent, individuals looking for a new position after taking related leave worry (often justifiably) about discrimination and invasive questioning from potential new employers. In these situations, it’s important to arm yourself with knowledge of your legal rights. Delaware-based career counselor Lauren agrees: “I’ve seen countless examples of job-seeking women who fear that, if they are open and honest about their struggles with a mental illness, they will be unfairly passed over for a position. It’s important to understand your legal rights when seeking work in this country. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against anyone with a mental illness.

Along with the protections provided by the ADA, you’re entitled to privacy standards that prohibit employers from questioning your health providers or obtaining personal medical records. Lauren explains it like this: “Your mental health is just that (your health), and as such, you are afforded certain privacy protections under Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations. No employer is allowed to ask a health provider for your personal health information or medical records, nor are you required to divulge your health information to them. Only with your written consent is an employer allowed to access your personal health records, and not doing so cannot be held against you. You aren’t hiding anything or lying to your employer by withholding that information.”