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Stress Leave: How I Used the Time Away From My Job

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When your work-life balance is out of whack, take a step back and re-center.

When your work-life balance is out of whack, take a step back and re-center.

An Unexpected, but Welcome, Leave

Recently, I approached my doctor about taking some stress leave from my job. I was terribly nervous about doing this, and most of that stress had little to do with the fact that I'd never seen this doctor before, and I don't do well with strangers. No, mostly I was worried because of the cycle of stress over why people tend to take stress leave in the first place.

It's no surprise that stress leave is becoming more and more common in jobs; people take weeks at a time off work because they're under so much stress that they feel they can no longer live their lives—let alone perform their jobs—as best they can. And stress leave is also much more common in the younger generation than in the older one.

So, with those two facts in mind, I had a remarkably self-defeating thought process going on. I was under stress. But some people go through much worse than I do, and for longer, working the same crappy job for years and years and never taking more than a week of vacation a year. And there I was, not even 25 years old, looking for time off work because I felt like I could no longer handle my life.

I felt like a slacker looking for an excuse to just skive off work and avoid taking responsibility for a while. I mean, how could I, someone who's supposed to be in the prime of their life, end up with so much stress that I needed to take a step back from life for a little while to sort myself out? I should be able to handle everything on my plate and more, right?

After all, I have a fairly comfortable life. I have an apartment, a good friend and roommate, adorable pets, and hobbies that keep me entertained for hours, sometimes days, if I have half the chance—things could be a lot worse.

But I also had two pets die this past December. I have a job that pays well, but I also have a job where I'm on probation and may end up fired after another month because I suck at the on-the-phone work. On the flip side of that, in my overnight database work, I'd spent weeks feeling as though I was the only one doing the work properly, and I spent half my shifts catching up on the work other people should have already done but yet didn't.

The lousy winter weather wasn't helping my mood, I spent far too much time in pain because of a sprained ankle (and then the subsequent feeling of lopsidedness and different pain as my body adjusted to walking without having to lean to one side), and I wondered quite seriously if my depression wasn't making a comeback. I had family issues going on, like watching my mother's new relationship with her supervisor implode, for which I was also taking some fallout. My shifts were cut back at work, and I had to switch to a schedule that meant consistently messing up my sleep schedule. I needed some time to back away from the things in life that were causing me stress, to see if that could help improve things before I talked to my doctor about perhaps going back on anti-depressants—something I really didn't want.

But I still felt weak. There was a little nagging voice in the back of my head saying that I should still be able to handle all of this and that people wouldn't take me seriously because I was young. Young people want to slack off, after all. That is the defining image of my age group, aside from the partying and drinking.

After hearing my problems, though, the doctor did put me on stress leave—more than I expected, actually. I had gone there expecting to maybe get a few weeks off, a month at the most, but what I ended up getting was 12 weeks off work and instructions on how to draw Employment Insurance during that time.

12 weeks! That was more of a reprieve than I could have possibly hoped for!

But what to do with all this time off? I can't just sit on my butt and watch TV for 12 weeks. As far as I was concerned, I'd been given a gift; I had a chance to potentially turn my life around from crap to cream, so to speak, and I didn't want to waste it.

What to Do While You're on Stress Leave

I made the decision there and then that I'd use this time productively. A friend of mine from a previous job confirmed that this was the right way to handle things. She had spent some time on stress leave in the past, and she said that without projects and tasks to keep her busy, she'd found herself under the stress of boredom, and that didn't help matters in the slightest.

Cleaning

First and foremost, my apartment needed cleaning, unpacked boxes needed sorting and repacking into better containers and put into storage, and I had a pile of dishes mounting up in the kitchen. This, I knew, would serve me well. In addition to the fact that cleaning would keep me busy, a clean living space is very good for one's mentality. A cluttered living space can make for a cluttered mind. It doesn't tend to make one feel good to go into a messy room and see belongings piled willy-nilly. Cleaning and organizing my physical belongings had a sense of symbolism to it. I clean my apartment, and I clean my mind. I organize what I own, I organize my thoughts. It sounds cheesy, but it's true.

Being in a clean space also tends to make one feel more creative, and I'd felt a serious lack of creativity lately. While I had creative ideas, it was more along the lines of "I want to want to do this thing," rather than actually wanting to just do it. I had no focus. That, too, is changing.

But cleaning up won't take 12 weeks (I hope). What to do during the rest of the time?

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Exercise

The weather's finally turning warm and sunny around here, the snow and ice have finally melted, and the outdoors is fit to walk in once again. I need to exercise more, and so I've been making an effort to take even a short walk every day.

It hurt for a while, what with the ankle and lopsided body problems I mentioned earlier, but I'm stronger now, and my walks don't hurt nearly as much as they used to. And with regular exercise, I ought to start losing a bit of weight soon. That will be better for my physical health and my mental health, as I'll see myself getting steps closer to my healthy eventual goal.

Projects

With all this time on my hands, I now have the chance to work on some projects I've had on the back burner for ages. I have some original knitting pattern ideas that need working on, some that may help bring in a bit of money if I choose to sell them rather than release them for free. I've had dreams now of making my way as an independent artist, and if this isn't my chance to make a start on that, I don't know what will be!

I have the time on my hands to work on designs, patterns, items to sell, and writing to submit, without having to try to squeeze everything in a few minutes at a time among work, sleep, and trying to sort out everything else in my life. I know that 12 weeks of this won't be enough time to get established as an artist and make enough money to avoid going back to a more mundane job, but it's a start.

I've been meaning to start up an account on artfire.com, a site somewhat like Etsy that allows independent small artists and crafters to sell their work and to increase visibility in their chosen field or fields. As soon as I get some products made, I'll likely put them up for sale there (and then probably write an article reviewing the site's ease of use and the diversity of crafts). I'm thinking of using some of my various scraps of material to make some embroidered pouches and bags to start off with before I jump right in and start listing larger pieces. (Plus, it'll give me a bit of a placeholder so that I actually have time to work on said larger pieces.)

Before I knew it, with all these plans, I had enough to keep me quite busy during this time off, almost as busy as when I was working my shifts in the first place. At first, that seemed somewhat daunting, but then I realized that the biggest difference between then and now is that now all my busy projects are things that I actually want to do, not just things I have to do. I may be spending a full day going for a walk and washing dishes, then doing some sketching, knitting, and designing, but even if all my hours are taken up doing that stuff, does it really sound so daunting? It is, after all, probably exactly what I'd be doing if I were on vacation from work rather than a stress leave.

And the stress leave lasts longer.

I still sometimes wake up with that annoying nagging thought that I'm just being weak and lazy, that if I'd pushed myself just a little bit harder, I could have gotten through this without having to take any time off at all. Other people do it and put up with worse, so what makes me so special?

The ultimate answer?

Nothing.

Nothing makes me so special, more deserving of time off than anybody else going through stress. The only difference between me and the people that push through it even when they know it's tearing them to pieces is that I went and asked for some time to step back. While some would see that as weakness, as not being willing to stick with things until they improve, it could also be a sign of strength and a step toward the ultimate solution.

I saw a problem, I saw a potential solution, and I took the steps to get to the solution. The solution is a personal one—me taking some time off to get my life in order—but it's still a step in the right direction, and nobody should be able to fault me for that. Nor should they find fault with anybody else who feels the need to do the same thing.

Sometimes pushing limits isn't actually the right way to solve a problem. Sometimes it works, breaking past the barriers and working nonstop to find an active solution. Sometimes, though, that attitude actually makes the problem worse, depending on what the problem is.

If the problem is too much stress piling up on someone who may not be able to handle that much, or doesn't tend to handle stress well at all, then adding more stress by telling them to just keep pushing forward is likely to make the problem worse. Sometimes the right thing to do is to take a step back, look at things from a bit more of a removed perspective, and try again from the beginning. Or maybe use the chance to take a different path or to carve out a new path entirely. That's one of the best things about having a chance to step back or to start over—if you have motivation again, anything and everything can be possible.

Being stressed can make you feel like you're drowning. Taking time off from work and focusing on mental wellness can help you get your head back above water.

Being stressed can make you feel like you're drowning. Taking time off from work and focusing on mental wellness can help you get your head back above water.

The Financial Downside of Stress Leave

The downside of stress leave, aside from the nagging voice of weakness that I keep having to tell to shut up and go away, is the financial aspect. EI is notoriously slow to process and arrive, and unless you conveniently had money put aside to take a few weeks or months off, you're likely to run into a few financial snags along the way. This can add stress to the time you're supposed to be taking to destress, which can do a lot to set things back.

My only advice on that is to be as frugal as possible while still being happy. Apply for EI as soon as you can, if you're eligible, so that even if the money comes a little late, it still at least comes, and you can catch up on debt as quickly as possible. It won't be as much money as you're accustomed to, but every little bit helps.

Also, with less 'unassigned' money (money that's left over after paying bills, rent, debt, etc.), you may find yourself appreciating what you have a whole lot more and taking more pleasure from the free things in life. It costs nothing to fill a bottle with water and to go for a walk on a sunny day, or even to just sit in a comfy chair outside and draw, write, or read an old favorite.

I'm a stockpiler and packrat, so I end up collecting more than I can immediately use. As such, I have a large backlog of books to read, video games to play, TV shows I want to watch, and stories I want to write. I already have these things in my possession; it costs me nothing to grab something from the shelf and start it. The money has already been spent, and I don't need to worry about factoring a new cost into things.

In a time where money will be scarce, this sort of thing is important. It's entertainment, which means that I'll be enjoying myself for hours, days, maybe even weeks, at no cost to the current me, and no debits from my bank account or borrowing money from friends. It's good, guilt-free fun, and if it's a book I haven't read or a game I haven't played, then it's something completely new to me, which can give me the same feeling of satisfaction as it would if I'd just gone out and spent money on the item half an hour ago. And it lets me go through my backlog so that I don't look at the lists of all the things I haven't done yet and feel so overwhelmed. A double dose of something good for the soul, and it cost me nothing that I hadn't already spent.

Writing articles for HubPages has been beneficial for me these past few days, too. Not only does it get the creative juices flowing again (apathy, depression, and a feeling of a lack of time all combined to put a block on those juices for so long), but when I feel like I'm running out of things to write about, I get a greater urge to go and try something new, so that I can write about that instead.

Try New Things

Another fantastic thing to do on stress leave is to try something new! If you have the money and have always wanted to take a painting class, go for it! Or hike a certain trail in a nearby park or wooded area. Or try writing a novel. If you've got the time and materials, there's nothing to stop you from going nuts and trying out some wonderful new ideas that you think will be fun. If you enjoy them, then they too will help cut down on your stress level and make your time off that much better or make you feel productive while you're at it.

While I have only just made a start to all these big plans I've talked about, at least a start has been made, and I also have the time to keep making some progress on them, to move forward in a way that I previously felt had been blocked off to me due to a lack of time and due to stresses sapping my motivation. Hopefully, by the end of this, I'll come out a better person, feeling more in control of my life and having taken a few steps on the road to living my life the way I want to live it. There will be fewer chains around my neck that are dragging me down and more freedom to make my living in a way that doesn't make me want to tear my hair out at the end of my shift.

And really, isn't that something we're all searching for in life? A bit of freedom and a chance to turn things in a more positive direction and to take control of our lives back from the people who spend their time learning better ways to control us? Most of us tend to live at the whims of somebody else, often a lot of different "somebodies," and that can be incredibly frustrating. Even if it doesn't reach the point where you need stress leave from work, it's important to take a step back and take some time for yourself. After all, without yourself, who are you?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Comments

mh on December 18, 2013:

great info people. I am curently fighting a harrassment issue with a new boss hired to give exisitng employees a hard time even the good employees? I have had this person try to set up fixed issues to make me look bad and then add it immediately to a peformance review the next week ?? This is just one small example of many. Tried to talk to our HR department and upper management and was told to deal with it? People are taken advantage of all the time and leaves are a good way to help people.

Cat on April 13, 2013:

Oh My Gosh! Thank you for posting this! I am going through the exact situation though I'm only just about to go to the Doctor this coming Monday to finally put myself on the right track! I know that I should finally admit my stresses and hardships so I can finally have a break and hit pause on my job. For so long I'd been too ashamed to admit it. But you've helped me see that this is what I need to do.

Thank you!

Justin on November 24, 2012:

Hello I am also under a great deal of stress at work and was offered a layoff from full-time work with a verbal gaurantee to call me back for the 3 month tomatoe season. I did not see the doctor first and my employer is now taking my full-time benefits away. Can they do that?

Mandeep on June 28, 2012:

Just read through your article and couldn't have said it better myself regarding stress leave and how to make the most of it. Excellent work!!!

Sweet Hipolytha on May 25, 2012:

I just had a promotion few months ago and now its really stressing me out. I couldn't really say now that I am thankful of being given a higher role because everytime I'm at work I couldn't bear seeing the face of my new superior and being with my subordinates is becoming a burden . As time goes by, I am starting to witness how incompetent my boss is. She merely rely on the expertise of the people under her. At the end of the day she is not contributing anything positive. She is a back stabber and unprofessional. I can be insensitive or unaffected by her misdemeanor to some extent yet now I've reached the boiling point and I wanted to take a break. I am so tired , burned out. I couldn't sustain anymore to be positive at work. Worse is she doesn't want me to take a vacation leave. I am starting to have chest pain and tremors while working. I even passed out one time on my way to work. Now I am thinking of consulting a cardiologist . I just wanted to know if the doctor can give me a certificate or anything in writing that will let my boss allow me to get a 1 week vacation leave.

star on May 20, 2012:

Thank u, I'm actually thinkin of goin under stress leave. N after reading ur article I'm forsure going to do it. Work was fun, but new manegment took over n it has been so stressful I can't perform. Thank u love for helping me out

Amy Powell on May 15, 2012:

I'm 26 and the assistant manager of portrait photography studio. I had sick leave in February because I had recurring vomiting episodes. These had been going on for some time, although I had still managed to get to work. Eventually the GP diagnosed that it was Gastroesophageal reflux disease and was able to give me treatment. I’d like to hope that this has now been treated successfully, but my GP felt that the condition was caused by stress, I believe that I was suffering from stress because before I was promoted to Assistant Manager and my then Manager moved on and I had to take on a lot of extra responsibility. This has been going on for 0 months now, where although I was promoted I have still been acting manager for the whole time. I have still not had any management training.

At the moment I have a problem with my back. This started at work 2 weeks ago when I twisted awkwardly whilst doing my first sitting of the day, I just about managed to carry on working that day, where I did 3 more sittings, whilst not being able to stand up straight and the pain was excruciating. I have worked in catering and hospitality business for about 10 years and heavy lifting and standing all day was always a big part of any role, I never really had massive problems with my back, although I did have some bouts of stiffness or pain. It would pass quickly anyway. It wasn't until the job I do now that the problems have become worse, I suffered a couple of days of stiffness last year, but wasn't laid up or off work during this time. More recently my back has now gone again and this time a lot more seriously and more painful than ever before, my job involves a lot of activity and movement, lifting and bending up and down constantly. 2 weeks ago, it went at work, and continued my day not really being able to move much, the pain was excruciating. I took the following day off as I couldn't move and then the next day when I planned to return to work I was no better, this is when I contacted NHS direct and saw a doctor who told me to rest and gave me painkillers. I still went to work, because as manager I couldn't just drop everything. After a week of doing what I could, I woke up one morning and was extremely stiff, I couldn't lift my leg enough to get over the bath in to the shower, it was really difficult and painful, but I got to work. When at work I called for an appointment with my GP which I got, and she said i shouldn't have been at work and should definitely take some time off now to rest, I told my employer this and she said "well you're obviously not very committed to your job are you?" and said that due to the short notice I would have to work the Saturday (our busiest day of the week) and then Monday also.

What with the added stress of my position, the nature of my job and the problems with my back that I am clearly making worse my working, I am under a hell of a lot of pressure and the stress is definitely getting worse, I feel ill all the time and I find myself crying for nothing, one minute I'm really happy and the next I'm so down and miserable!

I found all of you comments truly inspirational and I'm hoping that my doctor can tell me what to do when I see her again in couple of days, I'm certainly ready to hand in my notice and resign from my job, and I'm getting excited about seeing some of the opportunities that I could apply for now, but the depression and the stress seems to be holding me back a bit, and I am feeling much less confident in myself as I used to.

I would love to know what people think about my situation, and if anyone has any advice I wold love to hear form you!

T Miller on May 08, 2012:

my job has me working 20 hours OT each week. I am on Paxil for 3 months, cry everyday due to the job. the co workers are mean and do half the job they are suppose to but somehow get away with it. I get to do my work plus theres. They feed us sometimes at dinner becuase we cant make it home to eat at the table with our family all the while arriving at work at 6 that morning and not ever even seeing the light of the day. I do get a glimps of beaming light into the window down the hall as I turn back into my cubicle with florescent lighting and files stacked all around me as if they are coming in to smoother me, the phone never stops ringing, the demands of the urgent and rush request poor into the today's things to do list as I was my family and life time tick away with the clock and list of things to do. I am so stressed out that when my eyes open from waking in the morning after only 4 hours of sleep I just start to cry. ther are no jobs right now, i have no way out.

The company said they were hiring more people which they did just to find out they are hired two levels above me and much higher pay while I get skipped in the corporate ladder. I still get all the work though. I dont know how much more I can take before my front leg doesn't hold me up on the next step, or my body doesn't work with me to get out of bed and make into the job. The job has taken over my life. I think constantly about what i have to do, what didn't get done, what will get added, what this what that to the point I fill like pulling out strands of hair and screaming and crying all at once. I need help , I need a stress leave. Thanks to this site i now have the courage to make the next step. thank you

I may see the light after all, depending on if my steps taken are done correclty. I am going to at least try. I cant take it anymore. I truly feel as the day ends and I know the time is closer to going to bed i will ball tears because that means to me I have seen my husband for about 30 minutes and the routine of my stressfull life and cycle will start over again with no hope.

Pray for me that i get the stress leave please. thx

maria gomez on April 30, 2012:

should listen to a song that says

"...What life gives you, it robs your soul". I think they are referring to the job

TY on April 06, 2012:

THANK YOU!! Here i sit thinking all these things just to see that I am not the only one. THANK YOU!

BJ on April 05, 2012:

First, thank you so much for writing this. I will be taking "medical leave" starting next week (my boss, the source of my stress, is away until then). My dr has said "at least 3 months". I too felt that way. "If only I did xyz, then he'd be happy and not take it out on me" but then I came to the conclusion that I cant change him. I struggle with a psychiatric disorder and some of the medications that I've been put on have caused me to not be as attentive as perhaps I should be, but I am still the "go to girl". Everyone knows they can count on me but my boss has started to nitpick things. I honestly think he wants me to quit because I've been here 8 yrs and he would rather hire a new person for less money. The reality is that I wont beable to come back here, but dont know how to go about having medical leave switched to regular benefits. I'm very scared as I also have high medical costs but I know the path I was on was very self destructive and dangerous. But I very much feel "weak" and like I was talking to my dr about something very wishy washy. I have had the same dr for 8 yrs as well, and my old therapist (that moved away) told me over a year ago that "you cant be well and still working there" and now I'm finally hit the end. Things I used to love to do, I've not done in years. I have always put the business ahead of myself. And yet, when I told my boss I had to take medical leave and when, he didn't even say anything like "I hope your okay" or "I'll miss not having you here".... his response was "you're okay to work this weekend though, right? I cant really change this weekend (its his daughters 16th bday)". It just solidifed for me that I'm not appreciated for who I am or what I do. I dont mean to sound like I think I'm the only one that does thing, but I've been here for 8 yrs and the next longest person is less than a year and I have taken on a lot of extra responsibility in those 8 yrs of working for them. Anyhow, thank you for voicing what I'm feeling and just letting me realize that its okay.

rok on March 29, 2012:

Thanks for posting this! I am on leave right now. The stress led me into depression and anxiety. The psychologist gave me until the end of April off and I meet with him to sort through issues at work. I have anxiety attacks if I get too close to work. I still have some days that are up and down. I know that if I sit around and do nothing, I will get depressed again thinking about work. I have made a plan to get myself healthy again.

Nlewis on March 28, 2012:

Thank you for writing this you put into words exactly what I'm feeling..I'm under 25 too. I work for a very small company (4of us) and I know taking a stress leave can be the best thing I can do for myself right now. I'm scared of actually doing it, sending that email to the boss cause things are crazy busy in my office.

An I crazy for being scared??

nisha on March 10, 2012:

is good to live without stess

help on March 10, 2012:

Thank you for your article, very reassuring to those who can relate!! Stress is definitely an illness that needs more recognition! I for one has tried going on stress leave and unfortunately my doctor wont give me more than 2 weeks at a time which basically screws up getting any EI. You are fortunate enough to have a doctor be supportive. I have a feeling because many people are abusing this type of leave for personal reasons that that is why doctors are hesitant to give the full amount right of way...I guess my question is how else can you go about getting the note you deserve?

North Face Coupon on March 09, 2012:

Very well written post. It will be beneficial to everyone who employess it, including me. Keep doing what you are doing – i will definitely read more posts.

Carolina Collins on November 08, 2011:

I am at a loss of gratitude words for your article Ria! I am 49 years old and currently on a second week of "depression" leave from my job. I live in the USA and my doctors assure me that my job is protected while I am leave for up to 12 weeks. I plan to read your post as often as needed during my stay home. I do want to go back to my job, it pays well and it is very close to my house (walking distance). My internal doctor referred me to a psychologist which I am seeing weekly (out of pocket) and now I will start seeing a psychiatrist also, what the hell I even contacted an astrologer for backup support --but I must say that your article has been the most "enlightening". I hope to soon stop feeling weak and this sense of guilt for taking off. For three years, I have been in a tough position at work; I was placed in a position without applying for it based on the fact that the Company needed my skill set in that post. I was never able to fancy the department manager but always did my best performance. My reviews were always better than proficient rating at the the top 20% of the whole department. Unfortunately my boss passed me for a promotion, hired a person with an amazing resume but no skills and I was expected to train her, something I did not do, after all I must honor myself. Things got really bad for the last six months and I know deep inside that stepping aside is the best route to follow, I plan to fight for my job and return. Ria, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!