System Shutdown for Emergency Maintenance

I wrote this first piece late on Sunday night (12/5/2021) and shared it to my Facebook page, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Little did I know the reaction it would receive and therefore feel that I need to elaborate even more.

I made a mistake and burned my candle at both ends and up the middle for weeks and weeks and weeks: physically and emotionally. And my body got so vulnerable that when I got a basic sinus infection, I just couldn’t function. I am headed into week three of being sick. Of sleeping more than being awake. My body can’t fight this infection - even with the help of meds - in a timely fashion. And my job and family have suffered. (Not to mention canceling any social plans I had since before Thanksgiving.)

I’ve been forced to “disappear” and to be honest, I feel guilty as hell. My anxiety is sometimes worse than the sinus stuff because of letting down clients and family. It’s a vicious cycle and I’m not out of it yet. I’m sharing this very publicly because I’ve taken a stand for many years to #endthestigma . I always want to do it all - and to it all with near perfection. And this time, I failed miserably - in every way. 

I write this as Sunday evening is coming to a close – as I’m overwhelmed about facing another work week feeling sick and knowing I won’t be able to meet expectations. My own or others.

If you are in the position of supervising others, please ask people before they get into trouble: what they need, how their physical health is doing, how their emotional health is doing (personal and professional), and what you need to do to support them so they don’t need “emergency maintenance.”

There is someone I know very well who has consistently felt intimidated by her supervisor and the HR director any time she asks for sick leave or for family time off. In the 20ish years she has been with this organization, she has accrued over 100 sick days, and yet, when she needs the time off, it’s frowned upon. She had been having increasing problematic health issues in a certain area, and yet wouldn’t take time off to see a doctor because of fear of retribution – sharing she was afraid to lose her job and lose her health insurance. She finally had some vacation time and saw the doctor during that and was told it needed surgical attention sooner rather than letter. She tried to push back on the doctor because of this ongoing fear with her job and taking time off, but the doctor finally convinced her she could wait no longer. Even when turning in a doctor’s order for surgery and extended recovery time, the HR director and the supervisor tried to negotiate with her to delay. Thankfully, she didn’t acquiesce this time, because by the time the surgery took place, it was even more complicated and serious than the doctors anticipated. So now recovery will likely be longer. This should have NEVER happened. Here you have an employee with an abundance of accrued sick time – she clearly does not abuse it. She has a legitimate medical note, and yet she was still asked to delay. This anecdote has not even yet acknowledged the anxiety her supervisor and HR director have escalated many many times because of their attitude to sick leave. In addition, she has another two medical issues she isn’t taking care of as a result of this environment – one of which makes her job harder. And, some high-stakes mental health needs she can’t fully address either (you try talking to your therapist, via phone, late a night while also taking care of kids and see how effective that is).

There is another situation I am privvy to where a grocery store staff member keeps putting themselves at jeopardy for long-term permanent damage because they aren’t dealing with a surgical issue. They pushed themselves all through the last 18+ months of COVID to be on the front lines, taking double-shifts, working middle of the nights, engaged in physical labor they shouldn’t be in order to “get the job done” for this grocery chain and the customers. He finally was told that he could wait no longer, and yet, similar to the last story, when he went into HR with a doctor’s note, was asked to delay until “after the holidays.” His doctor told him, if he does this, he could lose the limb altogether due to blood circulation issues being caused by the injury. Why does it even have to come to this?

Thankfully, I hear less of these stories in the Jewish non-profit space than I do in the corporate or non-Jewish non-profit spaces. But I think the story I repeatedly come across in the Jewish world, is a fear of disclosing mental health diagnoses and needed accommodations. I am an active participate in an on-line space for those who live Jewishly and also live with mental health challenges. The number of times a person has asked in this forum how/when to disclose to a future or current employer about their mental health is staggering and what is worse is the anecdotes in the responses which reveal retribution for so many when they disclosed. We MUST do better. And honestly, I am guilty of contributing to this via my own discomfort and fear – simultaneously saying I want to “end the stigma” but sitting deeply within it and living with fear and anxiety of how people (clients in my case) will respond if I say to them, “I’m a mess and need to step back, and I won’t meet that deadline we discussed.” The scenarios that play out in my head are horrible, and most of the time, not real at all – it’s on me, but it’s on me based on societal history.

In a recent initial interview with an international Jewish foundation, I was asked “What kind of work environment do you need in order to be successful in your job?” This was the opening I needed to share that I need some accommodations for a few things (because without an opening, I would have struggled about how/when to share this):

  • I have a diagnosed circadian rhythm disruption AND I have diagnosed ADD. I work best from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. when the rest of the world shuts down and I have no other input coming in. But this also means, I need to sleep late in order to get adequate rest. I can be at early morning meetings, but if it is daily, my employer won’t see the best productivity out of me.
  • I need to be able to brain dump at all hours of the night and have my colleagues and supervisees understand this is not an expectation on them to work crazy hours. So if they prefer a mechanism besides email for these brain dumps (i.e. Onenote, Slack, Basecamp), let’s work together to devise a system that works for everyone.
  • I need time weekly mid-day to meet with my therapist (she has very limited hours) but I will always make that time up (sometimes at 2 a.m.). And every few months, I need similar time to meet with my psychiatrist.
  • I live with a diagnosed anxiety disorder and depression. It is (finally) fairly well-managed by medication and therapy, however, it will never be cured. I need to work in an environment where I can call in “mental health sick” the same as I can call in for “I have been vomiting all night” and know ahead of time, it will be treated the same. I need to KNOW without a doubt that I won’t be penalized for this. Because the anxiety it can cause leading up to that phone call if it is frowned upon is detrimental and makes it all so much worse.
  • I need on-going professional development because growth and skill/knowledge acquisition contribute to my self-confidence and self-esteem. And while it is nice for an employer to subsidize the cost, I most importantly would like paid time-off to participate in these opportunities. Again, I can almost always guarantee that it will benefit my employee and they will get plenty of work input from me to make up for the time away.

There seem to be some obvious actionable steps to prevent an emergency shut down – physical and emotional.

  • Create an organizational culture that talks and walks congruently. Don’t say that your organization respects mental health but doesn’t openly ask employees what mental health accommodations would make them more successful. Don’t say your organization values physical health but you force people to take a half-day sick leave if they need to see a doctor.
  • Pro-actively tell people they need to take time to see doctors – that they should not put anything off. Tell them you don’t want them to wait for emergency maintenance! Do this regularly.
  • Look for obvious low-hanging mental health days you can pay staff to be off. In the Jewish world, for most organizations, Chol haMoed Pesach is a great example. The days leading up to Thanksgiving are also fairly easy (unless your organization has a major Thanksgiving-tied event) and the week bookended by December 25 and Jan 1st. For many folks, this alleviates any concerns about childcare if schools in your area are closed, allows for less expensive travel flexibility, and creates space for families to spend much-needed quality time together.
  • Unless you are a school with set instruction hours, be upfront about offering flex hours. You can always set obligatory times when staff must be available or come together for collaboration/meetings, etc. But by offering flexibility you acknowledge differentiation for your staff and also recognize the benefit to your stakeholders to having people available at different times of day and different days of the week.
  • Consider how these actionable items should change your interview process and your on-boarding.
  • When you know staff is working extra hard, giving 110%, striving to get through a tough situation or tough deadline – acknowledge it. Verbal sincere thanks, public acknowledgement (to your board, to other staff, to donors), post-event staff celebration, gifts of thanks – they all go a long way.
  • Take lessons learned from Covid and forced remote working to integrate hybrid work environment opportunities. But give your employees a choice – because some may choose to be on-site every day due to their work-style needs.
  • Create real systems of redundancy in as many areas as you can. When an employee knows that everything will fall apart if they take a sick day, they likely won’t take it. If they know someone else is trained to step in seamlessly (and yes, I am even talking about rabbis/cantors and executive directors), they can take time to take care of themselves without guilt or anxiety.
  • Honor the “disappearance.” Don’t text, call, email, nag an employee who is out sick. In the end, disrupting their recovery creates a longer-term absence. If they want to set a daily set check-in, then they can set that up (some people might need it for their own comfort), but employers shouldn’t ask for it.

I encourage everyone reading this – Jewish professional or not, management or not – to make a list of what they could do, should do, need to do … in order to prevent themselves or someone in their work environment from need emergency maintenance. Even if it means simply forwarding this link and saying, “We need to talk.”

Tu B’Av, T’shuvah and Tying it Together

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Stephanie Marshall
    Dec 09, 2021 @ 01:53:18

    Robyn- thank you so much for this blog. While I don’t have any diagnosed mental illnesses, I do have invisible physical ones and the issues are very similar. With my fibromyalgia and other undianosed pain issues I have no warning on how my body is going to feel from one day from the next. I can be totally fine one day and struggle to move or get out of bed the next day. This affects different parts of my body on different days. I can have a very long list of things to do and wake up unable to type or lift my arms, other days I can’t stand for more than a few minutes at a time and at other times I will be clear headed or have total brain fog with no rhyme or reason. None of this is visible and many people do not understand the pain of fibro. As you know, all of this impacts my sleep as well. Because I want to work, I rarely disclose my health issues and push through pain for as long as I possibly can. By being open and vulnerable in this post, you helped to give me tools to speak up more about my needs.


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