I often work with people in my practice who are experiencing burnout. Sometimes it is appropriate for individuals to take a medical leave (also called disability leave or stress leave) from their jobs in order to recover. This becomes especially relevant when the job is relentlessly demanding, and the opportunity to recover isn’t present while the person is on the job.
A comment that I hear fairly often is that “one’s career will be finished by taking medical leave”, because taking medical leave will indicate they “can’t take it”. This may very well be true with their present employer because they may be judged as being “too weak,” or “not committed enough,” or “not dependable enough.”
But taking medical leave may still be necessary, regardless of what the employer believes. And once the individual is off work and away from the job, one of several things may happen, including:
- They may discover that the demands being put on them are extremely unreasonable, and wonder how they “took it” for so long.
- They may discover that their skills are in high demand, and they can look for work with another firm that will make reasonable demands of them.
- They may discover that there is a skill they need to acquire, which will enable them to perform in their job with less stress. This may be quite a complex task, like letting go of perfectionistic standards that kept them at their desk late into the evening. But once they have the new skill, such as setting appropriate boundaries, they will be able to return to their job and be just fine.
- They may discover that they want something different out of life, and that they are prepared to make a career change to explore another direction.
The simple fact, from what I’ve seen, is that there are a lot of jobs out there that are just too big for one person to handle for very long. A dirty little secret that most employers won’t tell you is that they are prepared to let you work yourself “to the bone,” because you are solving a big problem for them by taking on so much. They only have to pay one person to do the job, even though they should be paying two. This puts money in the company’s pockets and makes the supervisor look good to their boss. It also helps supervisors achieve objectives that aren’t reasonable, which may go so far as to help them protect their own job.
Read more about whether gifted adults are prone to workplace burnout or about problems gifted adults encounter in the workplace.
So what about the stigma of taking medical leave? Does taking leave really mean that you “can’t take it”? Sometimes it does. But sometimes it means that you’ve just taken on too much, and you need to get away from your job for a while so that you rest, and get a fresh perspective on your personal and work life, so you can figure things out. And if this means that people think you “can’t take it,” then you can find a way to make peace with that.
Read more about When to take medical leave for burnout.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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