Many of the clients that I counsel have come to see me because they are having difficulty functioning. Often this is because they have worked themselves into exhaustion and are in burnout.
When a person can no longer concentrate, can’t read, can’t pay attention in meetings, can’t seem to hold a thought in their heads or even formulate sentences, it is time for them to step away from their work. They are no longer being productive, and they are in danger of damaging their professional reputation and career.
Some people gratefully accept the idea of taking a medical leave to recover. In these cases, I often write a letter to their physician, explaining why I am suggesting that the person be put on medical leave so that the physician has detailed supporting information. The physician then provides a note for the client, addressed to the Human Resources department of their company, indicating that the physician has put the client on medical leave.
Some people resist the idea of taking medical leave because they believe they can’t step away from their job. For these individuals, I suggest that they get as much sleep as they can outside of their regular work hours. I also suggest that they take vacation time, away from work, as quickly as possible. Occasionally these strategies are successful, and the person is able to recover from burnout without taking leave. Sometimes, however, this approach doesn’t work, and the person discovers that they need to take a medical leave to recover.
I support the idea of someone taking medical leave from work when what they are doing on leave is more important than being at work, which includes recovering from burnout.
When an individual takes medical leave and works with a psychologist while they are off work, their time away from the office can be well spent learning improved self-care skills, including how to set effective boundaries so that they will not burn out again. These skills will likely include learning how to say no when their workload threatens to become too big. (Read this posting: How can someone in burnout improve their self-care skills? and Read this posting: How can I “pace” my activities if I am in burnout?)
When someone takes medical leave from work and doesn’t have the support of a psychologist, their period of leave may end without them being fully ready to return to work. This can be dangerous, because the person may lose confidence in their ability to re-enter the work force successfully, and may fail at their effort to return to work.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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