When Work and Life Don’t Balance Serious life crises can trigger a cascade of employment problems—unless you know how to handle them
By Liza Long
I’ll never forget the morning my son went to juvenile detention. I was conducting a community general education advisory board meeting for the college where I worked as a program director. As I welcomed our guests, workforce and education leaders from a variety of local businesses and schools, my phone began to buzz. At first, I tried to ignore it, but the calls kept coming. I looked down to see a familiar number: The Ada County Sheriff.
My face pale, hands trembling, I turned to a faculty member and asked him to take over for me while I stepped out into the hall and returned the call. A few minutes later, after learning the details—my 11-year old son had completely lost control in his classroom and had been transported to the juvenile detention center—I stepped back inside and announced that I needed to leave and that my faculty member would conduct the meeting in my place.
This is what it’s like to have a child with mental illness. From one day to the next, I never knew whether a crisis would derail my plans. And I’m far from alone: According to an American Federation of Teachers 2017 survey, public school teachers experience poor mental health days twice as often as workers in other professions, with 58% of classroom teachers reporting at least seven poor mental health days per month. A 2018 study reported that 93% of 123 public elementary school teachers in the Midwest surveyed reported significant workplace stress. The challenges with work-life balance may be even more severe for college instructors, many of whom are contingent and lack access to benefits like health insurance or paid leave.
What can you do when you or someone you love is in crisis? First, take a deep breath. Then, start marshaling your resources.
Employee Assistance Programs
Many employers now offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide everything from crisis telephone counseling to referrals for free visits with a therapist. For example, my own employer’s EAP offers five therapy visits per issue per year, and since I have four children, I figure that’s 20 visits per year (kidding, sort of). These programs are not just for mental health crises: they cover a broad range of issues that can impact workers, from substance use to child and elder care to financial and legal problems.
Over 97% of large companies and 75% of medium-sized companies offer some form of EAP, and these programs are usually voluntary and confidential. However, only 7% of eligible employees take advantage of their services, in part because they are afraid that their employer may find out they are using the service.
This brings up an important and complicated question: Should you disclose your life challenges to your employer? It’s a tricky question and depends on a variety of factors, including the severity of the crisis, anticipated disruption to your work routine, and of course, how much you trust your manager. In a 2014 study researching disability disclosures in the workplace, 73% of the participants reported that the risk of being fired or not hired was the most significant barrier to disclosing their disability to an employer.
On the other hand, as more capable and productive employees share their life challenges, the overall benefit to workplace culture and productivity as well as the individual benefit of work-life accommodations may make talking with your employer the right choice.
In either case, before you decide to talk with your supervisor, it’s important to know your legal rights.
Legal Workplace Protections for Disability, Medical Leave, and Caregiving
One of the worst-case scenarios for teachers with serious life problems occurs when their employer fails to provide reasonable accommodations. Unfortunately, workplace discrimination against employees with disabilities or family caregiving responsibilities is all too common, so if you’re facing a crisis, it may be a good idea to review your employee handbook. Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 protect workers with disabling medical conditions including mental illness, but it can be difficult to prove discrimination when it happens to you. While federal, state, and local laws prohibit discrimination against employees who are providing care for children, family members with disabilities, or elderly parents (and sometimes all three!), many employees don’t know their rights.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission publishes guidelines on best practices for caregivers. If you feel your employer is treating you differently because you have caregiving responsibilities, you may want to consult with an employment attorney or contact your local EEOC field office for more information and advice on how to protect yourself.
Medical Leave of Absence
Sometimes it’s just not possible to balance a serious life crisis with work. You may need some time to focus on your own health or the health of a family member. The Family and Medical Leave Act covers all employees of public and private elementary and secondary schools and allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year without losing their health insurance.
Of course, for most of us, going 12 weeks without a paycheck can be difficult if not impossible. Many workplaces including my own allow employees to donate unused paid leave to colleagues who have medical or caregiving emergencies. Check with your school district’s or college’s HR department to see whether you have a leave donation program in place. If your employer doesn’t offer one, you may want to suggest it.
Beyond the workplace, it’s important to get the help and support that you need. Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness provide support groups for families and peers experiencing mental health challenges. Al-Anon can help family members to cope with the devastating impact of addiction and substance use disorders. Social media groups also provide ways to connect with others experiencing similar challenges. It’s important to know that you’re not alone—that there is help and hope.
In my own case, after my son went to juvenile detention, I took the risk and disclosed his healthcare challenges to my boss. Sadly, it did not go well; I lost my job a few months later. When I took a position at another college, I decided to take the risk and try again. “I’ll work hard for you,” I said, “But I’ll need an extremely flexible work schedule.”
My new supervisor was sympathetic, helpful, and kind, and with her support, I not only provided valuable services to the college, winning a service excellence award for our campus, but I also was able to manage my son’s complex care. I realize how fortunate I am to have found a solution to my own family’s crisis. And I firmly believe that a critical part of advocacy involves helping employers recognize the importance of providing support to employees who need situational assistance.
If you’re going through a crisis right now, don’t panic. You’re an educator, and you’ve got this. Take some time to learn about your options and to identify your resources. Then trust yourself to make the best decision for you and your family.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this article shall be construed as legal advice. For advice specific to your situation, consult an attorney.
Liza Long is a writer, educator, mental health advocate and mother of four children, one of whom has bipolar disorder. She is the author of the essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” and her book, The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, won a 2015 “Books for a Better Life” Award. Liza advocates for mental health care on national level and regularly contributes to Huffington Post and Psychology Today.
The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.
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