Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
About every week, I have a talk with another client who needs to talk about taking a month or two off from their job, or maybe even more than a month or two.
Some of these clients are undergoing a debilitating treatment, or are recovering from an injury, or treatment, or are emotionally impaired. In these cases, the decision is clear. My job at that point is to support them by helping them cope with this change, to make the best of this time away from work, and to prepare for the future.
I have other clients who are contemplating making a request for temporary disability. Their reason may be physical, emotional, or a combination of the two. Or maybe their physicians have recommended that they take some time off and they are unsure as to whether this is a good idea or not.
This is never an easy decision for these clients. And supporting them in making this decision is not easy for me, either.
More than one way to see it
I have to be honest with you. I am what you would call “of two minds” about disability, temporary or permanent.
On one hand, if my client needs to take a break from work, if they need time to heal physically or emotionally, and if going to work will interfere with that process or cause them more harm, I absolutely want to support them in any way I can.
But to me, support means helping them to make the decision that is right for them. It’s not always so clear cut.
This is where that other side of my thinking about temporary disability comes into play.
In my experience, there is a lot to be said for staying involved in the world, including the world of work. I am concerned that my clients will isolate at home if they aren’t working, that they will sit in their homes with nothing to do all day. This can lead to isolation, feeling lonely and, with nothing else to think about, focusing on how badly they feel.
Without a schedule, it can also be all too easy to not eat healthy, to use food as a coping mechanism, and to not stay active, even on a modified activity schedule. It's also easy to fall into helpless/hopeless thinking. I am not painting every client who has ever been on temporary disability with the same broad brush. Some use the time well and return to work with their health renewed, ready to jump back into jobs on a full-time or modified schedule. Success! But other clients have not had this experience.
I understand that chronic conditions, whether physical or emotional, can leave you feeling like going through the motions of living is more than you can do. And yes, I also understand that I am not walking in your shoes, I can only listen and do my best to understand how you are feeling. I recognize that only you really know your own limitations and what you need to do about your job.
How to decide
If you’re in the process of thinking about temporary disability, here are some questions I use in guiding my discussions with my own clients who are making this decision:
· What aspects of my current job can I not currently perform? Get specific with yourself about the tasks you can and can’t currently do, and why. (Chances are, the company handling your disability claim may ask you the same questions.)
· Is it possible that any modifications might be made in my job to accommodate my current physical or emotional condition? Just a suggestion here. But it might be worth a conversation with your management and/or your HR department. Check your company policy on this one. While you’re at it, find out what rights you have to request accommodations.
· Here’s a hard question: Can I separate my feelings about just how hard life feels right now from whether I can actually do my job or not? In other words, is leaving your job the quickest “fix” for feeling frustrated with life, or unhappy, or just plain overwhelmed? And is it the fix you need?
· How will I benefit from temporary disability? Again, get specific with yourself about what you intend to gain from this time away: rest, recovery, healing? And if there is something about your job you want to avoid, e.g. a work environment you don’t like, is this a valid reason for disability?
· How am I going to use this time? Think about how you will spend your days from the perspective of accomplishing your goals for this time away from work. I am a big fan of having a plan, and a schedule, in place, day by day, to take the best care of yourself. What will you need to do for yourself to get better?
· What is my strategy for resuming my duties at work? You may not have all the answers yet, but make sure you are aware of your responsibilities, your options, and your rights. Reach out to experts who can help you to answer these questions.
Temporary disability is a big decision. Get support. Get information. Make the decision that is right for you.