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My adult child is hospitalized with a mental illness. How can I help them keep their job?

For parents of adult children, there is very little you can — or should — do to try and ease their way in the workplace

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Reader: Our adult child told their employer they needed time off for mental health issues about a month ago. This child is currently hospitalized. They had been a solid employee almost nine months, always working late or coming in early when asked, coming in on their day off, changing shifts whenever asked, etc. The child changed their contact numbers because of the mental health issues, so we don’t know if the employer has been trying to contact them. We are so worried that they will lose this job that they liked and excelled in. We want to try to preserve the job and the benefits. Is there any recourse for a parent? How involved with an adult child’s employer should a parent be?

Karla: Unless your child specifically asks you to contact their employer, you have no business doing so.

If the employer hasn’t contacted you, then either you are not your child’s designated emergency contact, or the employer no longer considers your child its employee. (Job-protected FMLA leave applies only to employees who have been with the employer at least a year.)

When our kids are struggling at any age, it’s hard to know where the line is between advocating and overreaching. Intervening with an adult child’s employer, however, definitely crosses that line. Even for a fledgling adult still in need of guidance, any contact you make with the employer on their behalf should be with their knowledge and consent.

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For all you know, the job could be what sent your child to the hospital. Long, unpredictable hours with minimal time off is the recipe for burnout, even for diligent, dedicated employees. And an employer that makes such demands seems unlikely to be understanding and accommodating when its employees break under the pressure.

I understand your anxiety about preserving your child’s income and benefits, especially if you’re not in a position to provide either. But right now, your child’s self-preservation has to take priority over job preservation. To the extent you can support that effort, you should — with whatever emotional and financial support would be welcome, without depleting your own resources or making yourself responsible for the outcome.

Ideally, your child would be willing and able to tell you what they need from you. But it’s unclear how much contact you currently have or to what degree you’re involved in your child’s care and treatment. Unhealthy, unexamined family dynamics may be hindering communication. Or your child needs a kind of professional care you were never trained for, leaving you grasping for ways to do what parents always try to do for their kids: Hold the world steady so they can climb back on.

To that end, your child’s treatment team may be able to point you to resources where you can find emotional support for yourself or research other forms of support for your child, such as social services or disability benefits, when it’s time to transition out of inpatient treatment. If you can afford it, a one-time consultation with an employment lawyer might be worthwhile to explore whether any of your child’s legal rights have been violated under state law or the Americans With Disabilities Act.

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Incidentally, this is another argument for severing the link between employment and health insurance in the United States. Whether you’re dealing with cancer, covid-19, childbirth or mental illness, having an affordable, reliable source of health care independent from your job means having the freedom to focus on the only job that matters: recovery.

Nov. 20 marks the 10th anniversary of the first installment of this column. What began as a fun contest in The Washington Post Magazine with the reward of a four-week writing gig has turned out to be one of the most fulfilling challenges of my professional life, addressing matters from the silly to the essential and work situations both appalling and uplifting.

Lindsay, a reader from Orlando, shared her perspective as a longtime reader and sometime letter writer: “I like to think I’ve taken away some bigger themes: It is okay/right/good to stand up for yourself; clear boundaries are key; when being given unreasonable expectations, ask your supervisors to help you prioritize; and don’t be a jerk to your co-workers.”

Thanks to The Washington Post for offering this opportunity; to the many experts I’ve had the privilege of learning from over the years; and most of all, to you readers who have trusted me with your dilemmas and broadened my perspective with your insights.

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