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In order to stave off burnout and increase worker satisfaction, employers should normalize taking time off from work before it becomes a crisis.Cecilie Arcurs/iStock

Back in 2018, work was stressful for Chantaine Green-Leech. The now 28-year-old had been working as an office administrator in Waterloo, Ont., on a team of three people. The workload was heavy to begin with, and when one employee left the company, reducing the team to just two people, Ms. Green-Leech knew she had surpassed her limit.

“I lasted about two weeks before I was like, ‘No, I don’t get paid enough for this,’” she says.

She booked a private meeting with her boss to ask for time off but was refused. When she insisted, Ms. Green-Leech eventually got the time off approved. But the situation left her feeling like her mental health wasn’t a priority, and that she had to come up with a “good enough” reason in order for her boss to grant her request for a break.

“After that, I just started saying I had appointments that I couldn’t miss, because taking a day off on the basis of [needing] a mental health day, it wouldn’t fly,” she says.

Ms. Green-Leech’s story is not uncommon and it raises some important questions: Should employees have to provide a reason in order to be allowed to take time off? And how much should they have to disclose in order to “justify” that time away?

No need to explain

Katharine Coons, national workplace mental health specialist at the Canadian Mental Health Association, says that situations like the one Ms. Green-Leech experienced are the reason many women are nervous to come forward with requests for time off. Ms. Coons argues that women shouldn’t have to justify their reasons for taking mental health days or simply needing time away from work.

“If somebody has a cold, we’re not going to describe every single symptom [to] prove [it] to the employer,” Ms. Coons says. “We should respect that our employees know themselves best, they know when they need the time off, and allow them to take the time off that’s allotted to them.”

Mirlo Liendo, a youth justice counsellor and author in Toronto, remembers being apprehensive about asking for time off when working for a previous employer. Her fears were confirmed when her request was denied because her employer said they would be short-staffed if she took the time.

“I was working in residential care, so that meant if I wasn’t coming into work, then somebody else had to, because there had to be people there,” she says.

These days, Ms. Liendo says she’s learned the value of advocating for her breaks, and she’s unapologetic about taking time off from work even if she isn’t in a crisis.

“I think we should normalize taking time off before you feel like you need to,” she says.

Managing mental wellbeing

Simone Saunders, a therapist and founder of The Cognitive Corner in Calgary, says that taking this kind of initiative can go a long way to effectively managing our mental wellbeing. Feeling a bit emotionally exhausted? Burnt out or a little foggy? Then don’t wait, Ms. Saunders says.

“Taking time off does not mean that you’re weak or that you’re not competent or that you’re not good at your job. It means that you’re human.”

She also agrees that women shouldn’t have to over-explain their reasons for needing time off.

“I personally don’t think that you have to disclose much of anything if you don’t feel comfortable,” Ms. Saunders says. “But saying, ‘I need to take a mental health day,’ should be enough.”

In order for workers to feel empowered to take the time they need, employers need to create an environment where they feel comfortable asking for it, Ms. Saunders adds.

That’s something Ms. Green-Leech says she’s found at her current place of work.

“When I do voice that I’m overwhelmed, I’m not gaslit,” she says. “I’ll just walk into my boss’s office and say, ‘Hey, listen, this is a lot. It’s too much.’ And I’m heard now, which I wasn’t before.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I have made the jump to management after several years of working as a team member with the same people. My colleagues were very happy for me when I got the promotion, but now that I am in the role, I am having difficulty getting them to see me as their supervisor. I don’t expect them to jump every time I ask them to do something, but I’m having a hard time getting them to take my requests seriously. How can I reset the way they see me?

We asked Angela Payne, president and board chair of Lean In Canada and co-owner of leadership development organization LeedHR to answer this one:

First off, congratulations on your new leadership position. Very exciting!

Moving from a peer to a leader in the group can often be a difficult transition and one that requires a great deal of mindfulness because, even though your team may be very happy for you, they may also feel a bit anxious about what this new role will mean for them.

As the new leader, there is an opportunity to lean forward and take the initiative in two different ways.

First, you could reach out to each of the team members individually to strengthen your relationships amid this new departmental dynamic. Consider starting out by telling them you are excited to be working together to shape the future of the department. This will hopefully reinforce the mindset that this is a team, with each member interdependent on each other to achieve success. It will also enable you to ask them what you can do to assist them in being/staying successful in their roles.

Secondly, you could share your longer-term vision for the department. New leaders often create a 90- or 100-day plan (you might want to consider if there is value in getting input on this from your new team). This plan would outline your ideas on how you see the team moving forward and what you can accomplish together. Creating the plan can benefit you in a few ways. You can create a roadmap for the team, gaining their buy-in and their support for your direction and role. You can gain your new bosses’ support for your vision in a concrete way. And, perhaps most importantly for you and the team, it can set the expectations you should have for each other.

Leadership is a big responsibility, shifting the focus from your individual contributions to lifting and supporting the team to reach their full potential.

This is an exciting and challenging new journey you have embarked on. Remain confident in your abilities and your team will ultimately appreciate the leadership skills you bring to the table.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? Email us at GWC@globeandmail.com.