5 things you should know about your family medical leave, according to a career expert

Warning: This story discusses depression, suicidal ideation, and in-patient care. 

At 25 years old, I was in a dark pit of depression. I was contemplating the ultimate, permanent decision, and the last thing I wanted to do was go to work. I’d cry writing emails; my opinions and value faded in discussions; and I no longer was the proactive, dedicated employee my company wanted me to be. After trying to juggle it all, I realized that something needed to change. I needed a break. I needed to get my mental health under control. And I needed to control-alt-delete my life.

So on a Friday, the week before Christmas, I set up time with my human resources representative to discuss taking paid time off for a couple of days. That’s when I heard of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for the first time and was informed that I had the option to take up to twelve weeks off from work, while preserving my job—or an equivalent position—when I returned. But even after hearing this good news, I couldn’t help but worry: What would happen to my professional growth if I took time off? What would my coworkers think? Would the exact job I was doing before still be there for me? What would this mean for my future?

After meeting with HR, I went home to my parents’ house to think it over. My studio apartment in the city had become a place to dwell in my depression, and I knew being alone would bury me deeper into my bleak state. By Monday morning, however, my depression and morbid thoughts made me physically unable to work. Seeking an answer to my depleting mood, my parents took me to the hospital, where my honesty about the plans I was making and inability to be human anymore warranted a five-day stay in in-patient care.

Even though the week in the hospital taught me coping mechanisms and rebalanced my medications, I was still healing and raw.

I quickly realized that those worries I had were frivolous when it came to saving my life, which made an extra six weeks off almost imperative for my health. During my time off, I also didn’t have to fret about the everyday stressors that come with work, such as waking up, getting ready, commuting, or simply being pleasant. Work requires more than 40 hours a week and being able to mute all that for a time period was invaluable.

When I finally did go back to work, I was more centered and confident in my actions. My brain was under control, so I was under control. The time off gave me the break I needed to refocus on myself, so I could be the employee my company and I wanted to be. A job of similar function was waiting for me, my coworkers were happy I took the time for myself, and the break brought a new perspective on my priorities and work ethic.

While my experience was complicated, it worth it. So, in hopes of normalizing the idea of taking leave, I spoke with executive coach and host of OhHeyCoach Career Clinic podcast, Ronnie Dickerson Stewart, who has also taken leave for a different reason and learned a few things along the way.

The only way to break the stigma, is to embrace the Act.

“For many, and for any number of reasons, it can be hard to come into the workplace. So, for someone feeling overwhelmed by incremental stressors, it could feel like you have nowhere to go,” explains Stewart.The truth is, 20 million people take advantage of FMLA each year, making it more common than you think for people to reprioritize their lives.

To give a little background, the FMLA was established in 1993 after a nine-year pursuit in congress. The idea is that when your employees are satisfied in their personal lives, they’re more productive and able to contribute in the workplace. “Never having to experience an instance where you’d need to take a leave might sound amazing. However, the truth is most people will experience it sometime in their career,” says Stewart. In her case, she’s taken leave to support and grieve with her family after losing her brother in a house fire, for an unplanned surgery during pregnancy, and for the birth of her children both times.

Maternity leave isn’t the only type of leave.

While maternity leave is probably the most commonly known type of leave, taking a leave of absence from work to take care of others still disproportionately affects women. Even though women are generally the primary caretaker and are equal or primary breadwinners in their homes, the need for leave is evolving as gender roles become more dynamic and fluid. With companies taking note of these household evolutions, policies are changing to be inclusive of everyone.

“This issue and the need for supportive [paid] leave policies and practices is absolutely not exclusive to women. People of all identities are faced with these circumstances and need support,” says Stewart. “However, in many cases, women are disproportionately faced with taking care of parents, kids, loved ones, and themselves.”

No matter someone’s gender identity, there are dozens of reasons for an employee to take a leave of absence: a physical illness, mental health reasons, taking care of an ailing family member, bereavement, birth or adoption of a child, and more. But while the many needs for leave are expansive, they all require a difficult task—asking for the time off.

FMLA is designed for you.

“We can feel very alone in those situations. But the reality is, many company policies are evolving and becoming better about how they support talent through life’s planned and unplanned events. They are beginning to create [policies] from a place of empathy, understanding and even personal experience,” adds Stewart.

Whether you’re suffering from a disease, trying to get an illness under control, or just hit pause on life, FMLA is designed to give you the peace of mind that your job is safe. The Act offers job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks of the year. It also allows eligible employees to take up to 26 weeks off in order to care for a service member in the family. In addition to unpaid job security, 13 percent of private-sector companies offer paid leave—thankfully, my company was one that offered it for six weeks. And if you’re receiving benefits from your company, they are required to leave them intact. You’re still considered an employee of the company, meaning you can continue to use your health insurance and other soft benefits.

However, if your company doesn’t offer paid leave, plan your finances prior to bringing your request to your supervisor. Certain states require companies to offer paid leave, but for those who go unpaid, temporary disability is an option to make ends meet.

Your paid time off is there to be used for emergencies, too.

To extend your leave, you can pair your FMLA with paid time off (PTO). Before I was admitted for my extended stay, I let HR know I’d be taking PTO through the end of the year. Then, when I got out of the hospital, I worked with HR to plan a formal leave. Your PTO is there to use, so make the most of your time off and consider bookending leave with it!

You may need to show proof of your condition.

If you’re contemplating a leave of absence from work, start preparing with your HR department and managers as soon as you can to secure coverage, and keep in mind that you may need to provide proof of your medical condition. While the law doesn’t require for employees to provide proof, the Department of Labor website does state that employers will request a medical certification within the first five days after the leave has officially begun.

The best scenario is to speak face-to-face with your boss as opposed to over email or phone. This shows respect, signifies the importance of the situation and gives you more credibility. If you work remotely, try to schedule an in-person time to talk with your company. Because my hospital trip was unplanned, I had to plan my leave of absence over the phone. Luckily, I had that initial conversation with HR that planted the seed.

My six-week leave of absence and FMLA ended up being the lifeline I needed and the key to making me a happier and more successful employee. Ready to talk to your HR representative and supervisor about taking a leave of absence? Remember to familiarize yourself with your rights, set a feasible start and end date, and don’t be afraid to speak up for your needs.

If you or someone you care about is struggling and experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone who can help. You can also chat with a counselor online here. All services are free and available 24/7. 

Career Counselor is the 411 for your Career 101. Whether you need guidance on how to accept a job offer or need a deep-dive on your 401k, we (and our experts) got you. Want more career advice? Check out the rest of Career Counselor’s stories here

Filed Under