Dear Lucy

Last updated: October 10, 2012 12:16 am

Is it OK to take time off for stress?

My doctor suggests that I take a few months off work to recover from exhaustion but I think it will damage my career

For the past year I have been suffering from stress and exhaustion, which I am trying to combat through exercise, diet and changing work patterns. My doctor suggests that I take a few months off work to recover completely but I am resisting because I think it will damage my career and there is no one internally who could cover for me. But seeing that the CEO of Akzo Nobel has done just that makes me wonder. Is it now acceptable to admit to being stressed and exhausted and come back as if nothing had happened?

Executive, male, 48


Lucy’s answer

If it were acceptable to admit to being exhausted, the CEO of Akzo Nobel would not have become a global news item when he announced he was tired and needed a break. Equally, António Horta-Osório would simply have been able to tell the board of Lloyds last year that he was shattered and taken time off without anyone making a fuss.

Instead, both men have become almost as famous for not working as for working. That is because they are the only two examples of big-name CEOs I can recall who have been man enough to admit everything was getting on top of them. To do so requires great courage. It means dealing with stress – hard enough anyway – in the public eye. It means going back to work with everyone watching.

However, now that both have done it, and now the Lloyds boss appears to be entirely recovered, things may start to get a bit easier for others.

You say you are resisting for two reasons. First, taking time off would damage your career. This may be true, but if you are collapsing, your career is suffering anyway. I know lots of people in journalism – where being tired and stressed is much less taboo – who have had time off and returned better than ever.

Companies generally don’t like surprises; I would start talking to my boss right now to explain just how tired you are, and set about planning the best way for you to have a break.

Second, you are worried there is no one internally who could do your job. In that case you may be doing the company a favour by ducking out for a few months. If there is someone potentially suitable but deemed not ready, this might be the best way of making them so. If there is no such person, your company is doing a rotten job at managing succession, and your going will force it to think about it.

But in the end, all these considerations are by the by. You are damaging yourself and have been for ages. You need time off and must take it soon. I hope not only that you recover quickly, but that if your employer ends up finding you less indispensable than before, that the feeling is mutual.

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