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If you're in a job which is draining your energy and is even inducing physical symptoms, at what point is it appropriate to take sick leave? I'm trying to find a balance between:

  • taking sick leave when I should just keep going and
  • keep going until I keel over

Specifics

  1. Doing a job rated as 1/10 for work satisfaction for one year.
  2. Stressed and irritated at work and home for whole year.
  3. Emotional worn down/close to tears on a few occasions in last few months.
  4. When discussing it one on one recently, have been short of breath, pain in left arm and dizzy .
  5. On other occasions, felt "heaviness" in my chest.

Update: thanks for all the answers and concerned messages. I left this place some time ago and have not had these symptoms for some time, so I think the recovery is working. I did seek medical advice (which was sadly not very useful) but since this was just before I left, that did not matter in this instance.

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I thought about adding all the personal details to this question, but I think it is best kept general (so that it helps more people). Please let me know if I should (or should not) add specifics. –  Wikis Apr 24 '12 at 8:12
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That does not sound good, but for a good advice (complete answer) I do not know you well enough... Take care of yourself! –  Markus Apr 24 '12 at 8:37
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In my opinion it belongs here, because you have a problem with your workplace. May be it is more difficult to answer to this or there will be more than 'one ultimate answer' to this. However: have my vote +1 –  Markus Apr 24 '12 at 8:43
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@Wikis I feel you bro... Maybe my question here will be of some help to you? –  maple_shaft Apr 24 '12 at 12:06
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If you lose your job, you only lose a little. If you lose your health, you lose everything. Think about what needs to be prioritized. –  l46kok Sep 4 '12 at 7:27

8 Answers 8

up vote 38 down vote accepted

As per my comment, I would genuinely suggest you visit a doctor and have them sign you off due to stress.

Given that you're experiencing physical symptoms, such as pain in the left arm and a tight chest, it's really important you go and at least have a chat with a medical professional.

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Thanks. Medical help was sought for the immediate symptoms and there was no urgent problem. However, now medical attention is required for the underlying cause. –  Wikis Apr 24 '12 at 12:59
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use the time to assess whether your current job is really worth the harm (both emotional and physical) it's causing. good luck! :) –  RYFN Apr 24 '12 at 13:20
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@Zeus - Unless the stress just brought to light the underlying condition then you could even say that the job may have saved his life. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Apr 24 '12 at 14:12
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Definitely see a doctor, but you need more than just to be "signed off due to stress" - given such a long-running problem, if no underlying physical causes are identified, I think seeing a psychologist would be a good idea. The symptoms definitely don't sound like something to just ignore. –  weronika Apr 24 '12 at 15:19

About 3 years ago I pushed myself until I did end up in the hospital. I had all the classic signs of a heart attack. I had a coworker take me to the ER where the Dr told me, luckily, I just had a stress induced panic attack, so I feel I have some understanding of this problem.

When is it appropriate to take sick leave/vacation time do to work stress / fear of burnout?

You should take it if you are thinking about how you feel stressed or that you are close to burning out.

The fact of the matter is no job is worth pushing yourself to illness, physical or mental.

You need to keep things in perspective and remember that the company you work for has no loyalty to you. Why would you push yourself to the point where you, physically or mentally collapse for them? More than likely if you end up reaching a point where you are unable to work for an extended time period due to illness they are going to replace you since you are no longer of an value to the company.

You must be proactive in preventing yourself from reaching a point of high stress / burnout.

How do you be proactive?

  1. Keep track of your stress levels. Get a small pocket year calendar and every day after work write down a number from 1-10 of your stress level for the day, 1 being none to 10 being when you experience physical symptons due to stress. When the numbers start getting high and staying high that's when you need to schedule vacation time. Something simple as taking the next two Fridays off can do wonders for helping you relax. Spend those days relaxing, no house work, no stress. Sleep in, go out to lunch, catch a silly movie, etc.

  2. Talk with your boss and keep him informed of your work situation and stress levels. Your boss should be open to having you communicate your feelings of your work environment. Most bosses like to feel useful and enjoy having employees come to them seeking advice, it inflates their ego. He might just end up being ok with pushing deadlines or getting you some help or finding other ways to lower your stress level.

  3. Walk away and find a less stressful job. It might mean switching careers or taking a pay cut but in the end you'll be much more happy and healthy and that's all that should be important to you. Remember that an important job title and big paycheck mean nothing when you're dead.

  4. Find an outlet to release the stress. Start a hobby, play video games, do a sport, meditate, join a gym or even get a weekly massage. Having a way to disconnect from work and do something you enjoy will work wonders for lowering stress levels. Make sure to make it a routine activity that you plan in advance to do. Saying you golf to relax doesn't do you any good if you don't actually get out there regularly and hit that ball.

  5. Seek professional help. There is nothing wrong with seeking a trained therapist to help you learn to manage and deal with your stress. Not all therapists specialize in stress management so you may need to search around to find one. Also most health insurance plans do cover therapy costs so there should be no worry about the expense.

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As mentioned in my comments, an answer to this is difficult. But I think it’s worth to try because I'm somewhat shocked by your question. Perhaps this can at least give others some more ideas.

If you have physical symptoms like pain in your left arm, heaviness in your chest etc., I think that your situation has to change before you are in hospital (or cemetery). What I can't assess is your personal situation. Does a sick leave really help you for longer terms? Do you have a family to feed? How difficult is it for you to change (internal or external to your company)? Or in other words: What is possible for you to change your situation permanently?
I hope that others here can give some more ideas, or you're going to precise your situation somewhat more. Take care of you, Dude

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There is short term and long term. Taking a few days off to alleviate some stress is usually a good remedy if the stressful situation is temporary. The way you describe it, your situation is anything but. 1 year of 1/10 satisfaction, as you put it, sounds like a permanent state of extreme dissatisfaction.

So, by all means, you should take time off if you feel that your are about to keel over. By your description, it sounds like you might already have but you have yet to acknowledge it so a trip to the doctor should be in your future and probably more than just a couple of days to rest up.

But, you should reflect on what it is that causes your stress and why your work gives you such little satisfaction. Sick-leave will prevent you from going mad or having a heart-attack but it won't improve your work-satisfaction in itself. Try to stay constructive, consider what changes to your situation, environment and tasks would make you happier at work. Then discuss this with your boss and see if you can put a plan together for you. Also take a long hard look at your job and decide if you can continue with it under the present circumstances. I understand that quitting and finding a new job is not possible for everyone and I don't know your situation. A lot of people, though, torture themselves in crappy jobs when they really don't have to. Life's too short to spend 50% of it miserable.

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Get help as soon as possible. In this sort of situation honesty (with yourself and your employer) is the only way. Letting it fester is the worst thing to do, no job is worth that, especially when your health is at stake.

With my experience of stress in the workplace I was luck enough to notice my symptoms early on and get help from my Doctor immediately, I was signed off for a couple of months and put on some mild medication to help 'level me out'.

Thanks to spotting it and not letting it become an issue that could affect the company, my employer was grateful and incredibly supportive. I have since left the company on good terms and still have an on-going freelance relationship with them.

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Even if there's nothing "physically" wrong with your body don't discount the magnitude and seriousness of emotional stress. It is as "real" as any disease and is fully capable of wrecking your career or worse. Stress also makes other bad things such as depression and chronic diseases more likely. Please find ways to address it for yourself even after getting out of that job.

See also Robert Saplosky's fascinating book about the physiology of stress "Why Zebra's don't get ulcers" and his excellent talks and documentary.

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When you should take the sick leave??
When you think you are sick.
I think I am sick now.
So take the leave as soon as you can.
My employer won't give me frequent leaves.
Then change your job.
No job or money is more important than your health. You won't see the repercussion now, but they'll haunt you in the future. Just for an example my boss never let any of his employee stay late in the office, because when he worked somewhere else he used to push the limits at cost of his health and now he suggest to everyone to not to repeat his mistake. It's better to learn from someone else's mistake than to make the same mistake and learn.
PS: The answer is just a friendly advice, telling what would I have done in this case.

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In many US companies the trend over the last ten years is to move sick, vacation , and part of holiday pay into one pool of hours.

Instead of 10 days vacation, 5 sick days, and 10 holidays. They are changing to 18 days of Paid Time off (PTO) and 7 holidays. The cost is the same but the accounting for the employee and company is easier. Some companies reduced the total number of days, but not all did. Most companies did change rollover and use-it-or-lose-it rules when they made the switch.

Once the company made the switch employes no longer needed to lie about needing a mental health day. They still require documentation for longer absences to get your coverage under the short-term or long-term disability.

Based on the symptoms, this seems like a longer term issue, you might start looking for a new employer.

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