A number of clients I have worked with have taken short-term medical leave from their jobs because of burnout. Sometimes the short-term medical leave has extended to long-term medical leave, which means that the person has been absent from work for more than 12 weeks.
Read more about when to take medical leave for burnout.
I believe that taking medical leave from work is sometimes warranted. Time spent away from the workplace can be incredibly well-spent and rewarding when the person on leave spends the period away from their job doing something important. The period spent away from their job can be disappointing, however, when the person does not understand the type of work they need to do to get better.
All too often, a family doctor will put someone on medical leave but the person will not recover. Instead, they may return to the see their physician over and over, saying they are not feeling any better and are not ready to return to their job. This may be because they are not doing the work they need to do, usually because they do not know where to begin. The person may be having panic attacks, suffering from depression, or unable to sleep, for example, and not be getting any help.
Throughout the medical leave, as well as after the person has returned to their job over the longer-term, it is important that a person focus on getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and when they are ready, to help their bodies to recover by establishing and then maintain a regular exercise program.
Several of these behaviours will either be new, or will have been lost, to a person who is in burnout. Pretty much everyone who is on medical leave for burnout has lost a regular exercise habit, if they ever had one to begin with. Same goes for getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet.
I also recommend to individuals on medical leave for burnout that they learn about “pacing.” Unfortunately, pacing is a practice that our society does not promote to a high enough degree. Read more about How can I pace my activities if I am in burnout.
I also suggest that a person on medical leave check-in with a psychologist or with their physician to see whether they are depressed, and whether they might benefit from trialling an antidepressant to help regulate their mood. In some cases an antidepressant may be able to give them the energy to do the things they need to do, including exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep. Read more about Do I need to be on antidepressants?
I am a strong advocate for working with a psychologist when someone is on medical leave and would benefit from having a partner to help them get back on their feet. I realize there is an inaccurate societal stigma attached to seeing a psychologist. However, this is one of those times when a person can benefit from challenging that societal stigma and trying something new. Read more about the Stigma attached to seeing a psychologist.
Early in my private practice I took several referrals from an insurance company for clients who had been on medical leave for more than a year. In almost every case, these clients were in burnout and able to get back to work – and to living a much fuller personal lives – once we started to work together to address the causes of their individual burnout. In the absence of working with a psychologist, many remained stuck where they were, unable to find their way through.
Read more about Burnout: the Stigma of taking medical leave.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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