Need Help Slaying Your Chronic Stress? This Law Could Be The Answer
Words: Tosh Patterson
Do you feel like you're drowning at work? The Family Medical Leave Act could be the life vest you need.
Being exhausted from work is an epidemic. Between navigating life, work, and family, things can feel fast-paced, demanding, and stressful. It’s easy to get lost in the sauce and end up at the bottom of an ever-growing to-do list.
My husband used to tease and refer to me as Ms. Now Now Now. He said my default mode was RIGHT NOW. Achieving. Always doing. Accomplishing. Lots of late nights, early mornings, weekend warrior at the office, all aimed at pushing myself harder and harder until the job was done and the goal was met. I thought I was thriving in a demanding, high-stress, high-pressure work environment.
Take on that extra project? Sure.
Do more work without additional pay? No problem.
Stay late to deal with an emergency? Okay, on it.
I was sucked into a fast and frenetic pace, thanks largely to advances in technology, which meant more email, social media pings, and on and on. My work life and personal life were often rushed and mashed together in a blur of activity.
That high-speed pace, that hustle, that constant grind, finally caught up to me.
First, my eye began to twitch uncontrollably and painfully for weeks on end. Then I started experiencing regular migraines before I rolled out of bed.
The gentle whispers had turned into a roar that finally got my attention.
Although my body was sending stress signals, I plowed through the physical discomfort and missed the warnings. I went from eye twitch to severe migraines to my body shutting down; I experienced excessive vaginal bleeding outside of my regular cycle, which resulted in vaginal surgery—scraping my uterine lining in hopes of resolving it.
Just a few months later the same issue returned and, despite an extensive battery of tests and second opinions, doctors could not find a logical source.
At the time, I was in a fragile mental and emotional state from not knowing exactly why my body was doing what it was doing. I remember being at an appointment, looking at my gynecologist with tear-filled eyes.
“Given everything we’ve done so far,” she said, “this could all be stress induced. Stress can wreak havoc on the physical body. Let’s remove the biggest stressor in your life and see if decompressing makes a difference for your well-being.”
The gentle whispers had turned into a roar that finally got my attention. Honestly, I didn’t want to admit that I felt anxious and craved time to slow down. But after urging from both my doctor and my husband, I decided to take medical leave using Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
FMLA—Beyond Maternity Leave
“Unfortunately work-induced health issues are common and, in fact, prevalent in the United States,” says Kim Ikemia Arrington, a human resources diversity recruiter and founder of Courageous Career Women. “It is a wise idea to take time away and leverage FMLA as a means to take care of your most precious commodity, your health. Put yourself and your self-care first and take a look into the FMLA options available to you.”
Although few discuss the use of FMLA beyond maternity leave, it could be used for other medical leave needs. There are three designated uses for FMLA:
To deal with a serious health condition of your own or of a family member,
To care for a covered military service member, and
To manage the birth of a newborn, as well as adoption and foster care.
President Clinton signed FMLA into law in 1993 to help employees balance the dual demands of the workplace with the needs of their families. The Act provides employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. It also requires that health benefits be maintained during the leave.
With FMLA you are allowed to take leave without fear of punishment or of losing your job. While the law doesn’t mandate that the leave be paid, you may be eligible for paid leave by using compensated sick and/or vacation leave in conjunction with FMLA.
If you’re dealing with a serious health concern, ranging from mental to physical health, FMLA may provide space for your healing. You may be at the point of needing something more significant than typical self-care. Don’t be afraid to consider FMLA as a viable option, for yourself and/or the care of your family. Personally, within a few weeks of being on medical leave, my health issues vanished. The simple act of allowing my body to rest allowed restoration to happen.
Navigating The FMLA Process
Here are some tips to guide you through the process:
1. Check with Human Resources to confirm your company’s policies. Read through the policy and make sure you fully understand it.
2. If you meet conditions for eligibility, request leave. State your desired start and end dates.
With FMLA you are allowed to take leave without fear of punishment or of losing your job.
3. Ask your healthcare provider to complete any necessary documentation. The doctor (e.g. your primary care physician, gynecologist, etc.) monitoring your recovery will need to sign off on your company’s paperwork.
4. Determine what portion of leave, if any, is paid time off. Ask questions regarding your ability to continue being paid through use of sick, personal, or vacation days.
5. Consider who signs off on your timesheet during leave time. Your company may require timesheet completion if you’re paid or unpaid during FMLA, so be certain to clarify what needs to happen.
6. Document and keep records of your appointments during the process. HR will tell you about official requirements, but for your own peace of mind, keep a folder with all the important information, just in case you need to reference it in the future.
7. Be mindful of your use of social media, especially with co-workers. I shared a picture on social media during my leave that resulted in my needing to provide extensive documentation to verify my medical need for FMLA. To this day I’m not sure who exactly took issue with the image. However, in hindsight, I wish I had never shared it. It was an upsetting experience that unnecessarily impeded my leave.
Giving Yourself Permission To Pause
Stress isn't just something that happens in your head—its effects can reach almost every part of your mind and body. A big, BIG part of my story and what I like to share with other women is my experience of burnout, mostly due to chronic stress. Living in a state of high-stress resulted in massive weight gain (hello, stress eating), my body shutting down, and mental fatigue. Having such a push-push-push mentality drove my spirit into the ground, but the use of FMLA helped me pull myself up.
Now I understand that high-stress environments activate the release of adrenaline and cortisol, those fight-or-flight hormones. You need those hormones if a tiger is chasing you in the wild, but they’re not so great for modern living when that level of hormone release is following behind you daily, for months on end.
In a world where emails can keep your phone buzzing until 9 p.m., stress can become chronic and negatively affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s important to take a step back and reflect on what you need—even if it means putting yourself in a time out. To manage chronic stress, prioritize self-care and take time for Y-O-U to recharge your batteries.
Tosh Patterson is a Maryland-based speaker, author, and coach. Known as “The Simplicity Expert,” Tosh teaches busy professional women how to simplify life, work less, and travel more. She's an aspiring minimalist with serious wanderlust.