Every day, your employees are struggling to keep their heads above water. Some are dealing with a sick partner or parent. Others are stressing about childcare arrangements. Many are battling anxiety, depression, and trauma on a daily basis. All while trying to do their jobs, show up for their friends and family, and fulfill the basic responsibilities that come with being an adult (during a pandemic, no less).  

At some point, it becomes too much, and the best thing an employee can do for themselves is to step back from work. In this post, we’ll explore the ins and outs of mental health leave of absence—what it is, what it entails, and what you, as an employer, can do to support your employees during this challenging transition.

What is a mental health leave of absence? 

A leave of absence is an extended break from work, which employees can take for voluntary or involuntary reasons—while maintaining job security and access to benefits. Most people view a leave of absence as synonymous with parental leave or caregiver leave.

Which leaves many employees wondering: can I take a leave of absence for mental health reasons? 

The short answer is yes. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) is a law that’s in place to protect your employees’ jobs when they need to take time off to take care of a spouse, child, or parent. But it’s also available to take for medical needs, which a mental health illness qualifies for.

FMLA gives employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. However, as an employer, you can choose to continue compensating your employees until you return. 

How to help your employees take a leave of absence for mental health

A critical component of making sure employees feel supported before, during, and after a leave of absence is communication. Here are a few tips on how to help an employee take a leave of absence for mental health: 

1. Approach with empathy

When an employee requests a leave of absence for mental health reasons, recognize how hard the situation must be for them. They’re probably juggling a lot of emotions—anxiety, exhaustion, shame—and may feel nervous about your response to their request. Here are a few recommendations on how to approach the conversation with empathy

  • Listen. Gently ask your employee to share the reason for their leave of absence, then listen. It may be tempting to jump in and offer “solutions” to your employee’s problems, but that’s likely not what they’re looking for. Asking for a leave of absence is likely a last resort, so it’s important to respect their decision. Instead, give them a safe, nonjudgmental space to share their thoughts.
  • Avoid certain phrases. You may be surprised when an employee asks for a leave of absence. But that doesn’t mean you should show it. Avoid phrases like, “I’m surprised that you’re requesting a leave of absence,” or “Are you sure this is what you want?” This may inadvertently minimize the employee’s struggles and put doubt in their minds. 
  • Ask them what they need. Finally, ask your employees what they need from your company to help them get the most out of their mental health leave. Do they need to reduce their workload leading up to their time off? Do they need access to additional benefits while on leave? Do they need support raising the conversation with their manager? 

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2. Clarify the process, logistics, and expectations upfront

One of the best things you can do to support your employee’s mental health leave is to clarify the process, logistics, and expectations upfront.

This means creating resources—such as one-pagers and videos—that define leave of absence terms and address the most commonly asked questions. Make sure all of this information is easily accessible to employees, whether that’s through a portal or a custom hub. Here are some questions you should address in your materials: 

  • Will the employee be paid? If so, how much and for how long? 
  • Is the employee guaranteed to have their job back when they return? 
  • How much time does the employee get off? 
  • Does the company require documentation from a qualified professional? 
  • How much notice does the employee have to give? 
  • Who will be the employee’s point of contact while they’re gone? 

3. Collaborate on a communication plan

At some point, the employee’s manager will need to communicate with the rest of the team about their upcoming leave. Work with the individual taking leave to develop a communication strategy that they’re comfortable with—rather than making assumptions. For instance, some people may want to share exactly why they’re leaving and have conversations with their teammates about it. Others may find this overwhelming and prefer to maintain privacy around their leave. 

Regardless of what your employee’s preferences are, work with them to figure out a communication plan that makes sense for them. 

4. Keep in touch 

Make sure to collect your employee’s personal contact information and ask them if they’re OK with you checking in once in a while. 

If they are, then try to reach out on occasion to see how they’re doing. And ask if there’s anything you can do to support them further. The company can even send the employee a card, care package, or gift to show that they’re thinking of them. 

This type of gesture is a great way to demonstrate support and make the person on leave feel connected, seen, and valued—even if they’re not actively working. It’ll also make their return to work feel much more comfortable. 

Taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons is tough on everyone—but especially your employee, who is likely struggling with a lot of conflicting emotions. With a thoughtful, comprehensive communication approach, you can make the transition a bit easier for everyone involved. 

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