This week, Steve Jobs announced his third medical leave from Apple Computer, the company he’s led to a string of successes and a stock market sparkler. Jobs’ reputation as a visionary anticipator of consumer tastes is also sky high.
For more middling managers, taking time off for an illness could be harder – and certainly will generate fewer headlines. People who are “at the top of their game” have more latitude to take a long leave or delegate much of their job, if needed, said Rosalind Joffe, a Boston-area career coach specializing in people with chronic illnesses. She has had multiple sclerosis for 30 years and other chronic conditions. “Most people can be replaced,” she said, though federal law provides some protections during a Family and Medical Leave Act break or under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Joffe’s best advice for those without Jobs’ stellar reputation is to keep working as much as you are able to – and know that the engagement can be good for you. Stay on as long as your health allows, but be attuned so you know when to let go. So how do you know when you should take off time for illness? Joffe suggests asking yourself these three questions:
- How are your symptoms impacting you and your work performance? “On your own or with someone you trust, do a careful self-assessment,” she said. Consider how your anxiety and stress may be changing your management style and personality – and how that may read to coworkers around you.
- What do I want to do, and need to do about the illness? Create a plan for yourself and your team. Figure out what kind of “workarounds” are necessary and estimate how much time off you may need. Look at your situation, the likely future path and take responsibility for managing it.
- What am I going to tell people? Who needs to know about my illness? Some leaders with chronic illnesses clue in only members of their immediate team; others let everyone know. Do what’s necessary and what’s comfortable and what fits your style and culture, Joffe said. Then talk about your illness without emotion. Make it clear that you are committed to your job and your team as well as your health.
If you’re facing cancer or another disease with a long duration, consider joining a support group or enlisting some advice from a nonprofit such as Cancer and Careers.
Her other advice: “Keep your team on your side.” People usually don’t lose their jobs or their standing if they’re well-liked or if they bring extraordinary value to their employer. And while you’re on leave, depending on your job and your treatment, stay in touch and somewhat available to their colleagues. “You’re still seen as part of the team,” Joffe said.