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FMLA Retaliation: What is the Impact of Stress Leave on My Career?

Home » Our Blog » FMLA Retaliation: What is the Impact of Stress Leave on My Career?

Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on May 24, 2024

High-stress levels at work have become the new normal for many Americans. According to the American Institute of Stress, 80% of workers feel stress on the job, and half say they need help in managing their stress. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. FMLA leave can be used for the employee’s own serious health condition or to care for a sick family member.

During the height of the COVID-19 and to this day, the impact of the pandemic is still eliciting long-lasting effects, leaving many unaddressed mental health concerns. If left unchecked, stress can turn into depression or anxiety, which are diagnosable conditions with serious mental and physical health implications. As a result, many employees are taking FMLA leave for stress and burnout.

Fear of FMLA Retaliation

While FMLA leave is a valuable resource for employees who need time to deal with stress, burnout, anxiety, and other mental health issues, some workers may worry about the impact that taking such leave will have on their careers.

“Will future employers see it on my record?”

“Will my co-workers think I’m just being lazy?”

“What about FMLA retaliation? How will I know if my employer won’t take action against me for taking stress leave?”

These are all valid concerns. Let’s first understand what FMLA is, and what the impacts taking an FMLA leave might have on your career.

What is FMLA?

The Family Medical Leave Act is a law that provides employees with job-protected, unpaid medical leave for qualifying medical and family reasons. This means that if you take FMLA leave, your employer cannot retaliate against you or fire you for doing so.

For example, if you need to take time off to deal with a serious health condition, your employer must hold your job open for you and cannot give it to someone else. Similarly, if you need to care for a sick family member, your employer cannot count that against you when making future decisions about your career. These are your FMLA rights and they are codified into federal law.

The Family Medical Leave Act applies to all employers with 50 or more employees and to all employees who have worked for their employer for at least 12 months and have clocked at least 1,250 hours during that time.

Can I Take FMLA Leave For Mental Health?

There are not many things more important than your health and well-being. If you are struggling with your mental health and you are experiencing overwhelming amounts of stress, taking FMLA leave for stress is the right decision.

As a thought experiment, consider how people would respond if you took a health leave because you broke a bone. No one would blame you for taking time off of work to heal your broken bone.

A person’s mental health is just as important, if not more important than their physical health, and no one should blame you for taking time off of work to address your mental health concerns. Mental health issues are health issues, and they are protected by the Family Medical Leave Act in the same way.

If you think you might need to take a leave of absence in the near future, it’s important to understand your rights under FMLA to be able to weigh the pros and cons of taking medical leave to manage your mental health. This will help you avoid any potential problems down the road.

How Taking FMLA Leave For Mental Health Can Affect Your Career

It’s important to remember that your employer cannot legally retaliate against you for taking FMLA leave if you were an eligible employee. This means that they cannot fire you, demote you, reduce your pay rate, or otherwise punish you for using your accrued leave time.

However, just because your employer can’t retaliate against you doesn’t mean they won’t try. In some cases, employers may attempt to skirt the law by coming up with other reasons for taking adverse action against an employee.

For example, an employer might say that an eligible employee who took a leave of absence was fired for poor performance, even if that wasn’t the real reason. Or, an employer might try to give an employee a negative performance review after they return from leave in an attempt to discourage them from taking leave in the future.

What Can You do About FMLA Retaliation?

If for some reason, an individual is let go from their job or punished as a result of taking a medical leave of absence, there are resources available. Employment attorneys will ensure that any employer’s adverse employment decision is met with proper litigation to determine if a persons employment was wrongfully or rightfully terminated.

An employee alleging FMLA retaliation should document everything and reach out for professional help when necessary. FMLA retaliation claims are treated seriously, as breaching the FMLA Act would be violating his or her rights.

Possible Effects of FMLA Leave

In addition to FMLA retaliation, you may feel that taking leave may have other negative impacts on your career. For example, if you need to take an extended leave of absence, you might be worried about missing out on opportunities at work, you may feel less socially connected to your coworkers, or you may be worried about work piling up upon your return. However, it’s important to keep in mind that there will likely be more opportunities at work in the future and that your workload will probably be divvied up while you are absent.

Taking FMLA leave can have an impact on your career, however, it’s important to remember that your employer cannot retaliate against you for taking leave and that you have the right to take leave without fear of reprisal. In most cases, deciding to take a leave of absence can be viewed as the decision of a reasonable employee.

How to Mitigate the Potential Consequences

Fortunately, knowing some of the career risks associated with taking an extended leave of absence can help you mitigate the potential consequences.

1. Talk To Human Resources in Advance

If you are struggling with stress and mental health at your workplace, talk to your human resource manager about your concerns. It’s important that you speak with HR before telling your employer that you are going to take FMLA leave, so that there is documentation of your plan. Depending on your individual workplace, it might be good etiquette to also tell your employer about your planned leave as soon as you can.

While human resources may not be able to authorize FMLA leave, notifying them can improve the likelihood that your request is approved and met with support. Just remember to tell HR first. Your employer may encourage you to not take a leave of absence for stress, but only you can decide what is the right decision for you and your mental health.

2. Keep in Touch With Your Co-Workers

If you take a prolonged leave of absence for stress or mental health, try to stay in touch with co-workers you have a close relationship with. You can do this by sending them periodic updates on your progress or by staying in touch via social media to continue to foster social connections and relationships. This way, you won’t feel forgotten about or feel out of the loop when you return, and when you feel ready, you can stay up to date with events that are happening in the workplace.

3. Make a Plan for When You Return

If you take a prolonged leave of absence for stress or mental health, make sure to have a plan for when you return. For example, you might want to set up a meeting with your supervisor to discuss your job duties, or you might want to brush up on your skills. By having a plan, you can make the transition back to work smoother and less stressful.

Taking an extended leave of absence can certainly have an impact on your career. However, by following the tips above, you can mitigate the potential consequences and minimize the impact on your career.

Final Thoughts

If you’re considering taking an FMLA leave for mental health or stress, it’s important to be proactive. This way, you can make an informed decision about what’s best for you and your career. While there are some potential risks associated with taking mental health or stress leave, FMLA retaliation is against the law. There are also some ways to mitigate the risks. For example, you can talk to human resources in advance, keep in touch with your co-workers, and make a plan for when you return.

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to take an extended leave of absence is a personal one. Only you can make the best decision for you and your career. Don’t forget, taking care of yourself is of the utmost importance.

At Clear Behavioral Health, we are experts at treating stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Contact us today to learn more about our treatment options including residential mental health treatment for severe conditions, outpatient mental health programs for ongoing support, and virtual IOP serving all of California. Together we can make a stress and mental health leave plan. We will advocate for you and ensure you receive the FMLA leave you’re entitled to for stress and mental health.

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