FMLA and Mental Health

I was three months away from graduating with my Master’s Degree and my life was crumbling around me. I couldn’t make it through a shift at work without crying. I couldn’t walk to my desk without feeling like everyone was staring at me. Every conversation around me felt like needles pricking my skin. My legs and feet were going numb and my hands felt like oversized Mickey Mouse gloves. I missed so much work, I was about to lose my job. Was it mania? Anxiety? Depression? I had no idea, but I knew something wasn’t right.

I was at work and panic kicked in…

I had to talk to someone. I reached out and next thing I know, I am in a meeting room crying my eyes out in front of a manager who knew nothing but my name. She suggested I reach out to our Time Away From Work vendor and file FMLA. I toughed it out for the next month and a half, then got approved for FMLA. Although I had it at my last job, I had to make it 12 months with my new company to quality for FMLA.

Four weeks before graduation… I had the worst breakdown of my life.

I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I cried constantly. I was up all hours of the night and I was alone in Nashville. I had a taste for alcohol, and didn’t feel safe alone anymore because I was going through really bad mania. The sleepless nights and days of crying continued. I didn’t even know why I was crying. I was numb and emotionless with no motivation. Time Away From Work wouldn’t let me return to work until I was evaluated by a psychiatrist. I was out of work for almost 4 weeks. My friend traveled for work, and was heading to the Florida coastline that week. I was scared I would relapse/binge drink, so I went on their business trip.

So, there I was… at the beach. In the hotel room on FMLA. No, I wasn’t abusing the system. I was healing.

My toes didn’t touch the sand.
The sunlight barely graced my shoulders.
I stayed inside with the curtains drawn and the door opened.
I could hear the seagulls and waves crashing along the shoreline.
It was warm outside, and I was in my happy place… but my mind was not.

The last day I was there, I moved a chair to the door and finally felt the sun.

I sat there, with my upper body in the shadows of the room and my legs in the sun.

I made what I called progress.

It was scary being out of work for 4 weeks and not having a paycheck, but I did receive some short-term disability benefits. The time off work was much needed for my mental health. Once I returned from Florida, I stayed with my friends and family in Alabama until it was time to see my psychiatrist and return to work.

6 months later… last Sunday, I put my swimsuit on and got knee deep in the ocean. It may have been November and cold- but I stood there in my happy place.

6 months after I didn’t have the courage to leave the hotel room, I made what I call progress.

A lot has happened in the last 6 months. I made it through graduation, went back to work, left work, went back to work, missed more work… lol
I was so proud of myself once when I went a whole week without missing work. I went through 4 different cocktails of medications before I gave up on the new psychiatrist. I stuck with my old medication, moved three times, and transferred into a new position at work.

I work from home now. My support system keeps me going. I have improved my work attendance by 80% at my new job. Yes. I work from home and I still miss work. I still get sick and can’t function for those 8 work hours. Just because I work from home doesn’t mean things are a walk in the park. I plan on applying for FMLA in my new position soon. My certificate expired a few months ago.

So, what is FMLA?

FMLA is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, a labor law. This law is designed to allow eligible employees family and medical leave for certain situations. FMLA protects employees from job loss and enables employees to continue healthcare coverage during the protected time away from work. There are conditions and requirements for employers and employees for FMLA eligibility.

FMLA can provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12 month period.

Examples of situations that FMLA covers are:

  • The birth of a child or to care for a newborn (within one year of birth)
  • To care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition
  • Your own serious health condition that prevents you from performing essential functions of your job

FMLA can cover a longer period of leave under military caregiver leave. To see a complete guide of information and situations that qualify for FMLA leave, an employee guide is available from the Department of Labor and a factsheet is also available.

FMLA Eligibility

  1. You must work for an eligible employer. These include: government agencies, elementary schools, secondary schools, and private employers with over 50 employees
  2. You must have worked for your employer at least 12 months
  3. You must have worked 1250 productive hours in the 12 months before you take leave (this is an average of 24 hours a week)
  4. You must work at a location with 50 employees within 75 miles of the worksite

If you are an Airline Flight Attendant or Flight Crew Employee your rules differ because of scheduling.

Is FMLA Worth the Work?

YES! If I did not have FMLA I would have lost two of my jobs five times over. No joke. Every company handles their processes differently, but your doctor will have to fill out FMLA paperwork that lasts for varying amounts of times and you will work with HR to get the job done.

There is also intermittent FMLA, which is FMLA taken in separate time frames for a single medical issue. For example, I have had intermittent FMLA for chronic migraines as a side effect of bipolar II. When my mood cycles, I have migraines and they are somewhat predictable, but not really. They happen almost every 4-5 weeks and I can’t function as a human when it hits. It used to be more frequent, so I am content with it happening at this pace. 

If you have a mental health disorder that prevents you from performing essential functions of your job, you may consider FMLA- especially if your attendance is related to your mental health issues. If your disorder is not affecting your attendance, another option is to request a workplace accommodation under ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act). That is a topic for a future post.

Whatever route you choose, please do not suffer alone or silently!

If you suffer, look into FMLA and take the time to heal if you qualify. Find your happy place and make progress. Listen to the waves and stand strong in them 6 months later! Life is a beach.

Resources and Guides

US Department of Labor FMLA Website

Department of Labor FMLA Fact Sheets (Fact Sheets on topics such as qualifying reasons for leave and loco parentis under FMLA)

FMLA Poster (PDF)

FMLA Employer Guide

FMLA Employee Guide

A few sidenotes:

Some states have FMLA leave that expands the Federal FMLA leave benefits. Some of these states currently include California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C.

FMLA will not protect you from losing your job if you have done something negligent or if a situation arises where your department is let go due to being overstaffed/layoffs. Although the second situation does not happen often, I have seen individuals lose their position while on FMLA leave during layoffs. It is not illegal to be fired when you are on FMLA, it is illegal for you to be fired because you are on FMLA. If your intentions are pure, trust the system. You won’t have any problems (: