Man on a leather couch with his hand to his forehead

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified stress and anxiety for many of us. On top of normal stressors, the pandemic brought about a host of new worries for working families, from concerns about the virus to dealing with virtual school and maintaining a career. With these additional stressors, employers asked workers to work from home during the pandemic and were expected to perform at the same level of speed and efficiency. Frontline workers had no choice but to go to work in the face of a deadly disease. For many, the need to take a stress leave was unavoidable.

Asking for accommodations

I was one of those individuals who worked on the COVID-19 frontlines. As a mother, I needed accommodation because of pandemic-related stress and lack of childcare. When I requested special accommodations from my employer to help manage my kids’ virtual school schedules, I was given hesitant approval and the caveat that it would only be on a temporary basis. While I felt fortunate to be approved for at least this temporary period, I could not help but feel invalidated by this experience. I felt a lack of support as a mother, and as a worker. Like other working moms, I felt guilt and shame for even asking for accommodation.

Taking a leave of absence for childcare, mental health, and stress makes many of us feel guilty. We worry about what our co-workers are going to think or say about us, and about the repercussions we may face upon our return. We may be concerned about being seen as “weak” or unable to handle the requirements of the job. For women, people with a disability or who identify as racialized, the stakes are even higher.

Tips for managing emotions associated with stress leave

Guilt and shame are uncomfortable feelings. They can exacerbate the stressors necessitating the leave in the first place. Below are 4 ways to manage the guilt and shame associated with stress leave:

Be kind to yourself

Accept and acknowledge that things are tough right now. Ask yourself what you would say to a friend if they were experiencing the same struggles.

Prioritize self-care

Self-care looks different for everyone. It could be meditation, physical activity, or reaching out to talk to someone. Find the things that work best for you.

Reframe negative self talk

It’s hard to switch off negative self-talk because it is often automatic. Look at the evidence for and against negative thoughts about yourself to rewrite the narrative.

Remind yourself that the work will still get done

With or without you, the work will get done and it is not your responsibility to make sure that happens. Your employer will find a way. You are not defined by your workplace.

Thinking of taking a stress leave?

If you’re thinking of taking a stress leave, or perhaps you’re already on one, consider the following:

1. What is the goal of your stress leave?

Write it down. Consider whether your work situation will stay the same once you return, and if not, what will change and how will that change impact you. Consider whether alternative employment options might be worth looking into. Remember, there is only so much you can do to reduce stress in certain environments, and there is no shame in recognizing that your current job may not be the right environment for you.

2. What will your return to work look like?

If you decide to attempt a return to work, carefully consider what you will tell your co-workers upon your return. While you are within your rights to keep your personal struggles to yourself, it would be of benefit to you to rely on coworkers as your support system as you ease back into work life. Consider who you want to tell and what you want to tell them. You may find certain coworkers may offer comfort when most needed.

In summary

Mental health is something every workplace should prioritize. There are various reasons and factors that lead to one needing to take a stress leave.

If you find yourself in a situation where work stressors are taking a heavy toll on your mental health, you should take whatever steps you feel are necessary to care for yourself, despite any guilt or shame that may come along with it. Be kind to yourself. You deserve to be happy.

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