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I know I need to go on disability leave, but I’m still terrified

Intellectually, I know it is time to take short-term disability leave. Emotionally, I am terrified of leaving a well-paid job at the age of 60.

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Reader: I have an intractable and disabling neurological condition that has gotten worse the past few years. I can no longer put in a full workweek or give some parts of my work the attention they deserve. Intellectually, I know it is time to take short-term disability leave. Emotionally, I am terrified of leaving a well-paid job at the age of 60, even temporarily. It is possible that my condition will not improve in the short run and I would need to go on long-term disability. How do I gear up emotionally to take the steps I need to focus on my health?

Karla: I’m so sorry you’re having to face this abrupt detour in your life and career. If you’re not already talking to someone, your doctor or employee assistance program (if available) can point you to a mental health professional or support group to help you navigate the emotional challenges ahead.

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While I have not (yet) had to face a health crisis of this magnitude, I know this: When I’m terrified, it’s usually because I’m looking too far ahead of the path in front of me. I’ve barely laced up my boots, but my brain is already scaling Worst-Case Scenario Mountain. For me, focusing on the practical helps cut through fear like a flashlight in the fog. So that’s the approach I’m going to recommend here.

Two things help me rein in anxiety: charting a map of the terrain ahead, and then focusing on the reality of the next step.

Learn about your benefit options

When mapping out your future in this kind of situation, “most of it is educating yourself and getting the information you need so you can make an informed decision,” says Terri Rhodes, CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition.

The standard path for someone facing a long-term illness or disability would be to claim short-term disability benefits until they run out, then claim long-term disability until eligible for federal disability benefits through Social Security. But additional benefits and options may be available depending on your employer and state; some private retirement savings accounts also include a disability component, Rhodes noted.

For each of these options, you’ll want to find out:

  • How do I qualify for this benefit?
  • How long does it last?
  • How much does it pay?

Consult experts

  • For the nuts and bolts of how your benefit plans work and interact with one another, consult your HR department or your employer’s third-party benefits administrator. They can also tell you how your health care coverage may be affected if you stop working long-term.
  • Unfortunately, your income will almost certainly take a hit. People with disabilities face disproportionate economic hardship. Census Bureau data indicates that up to 25 percent of people with disabilities live in poverty. Start looking into how to reduce expenses, boost savings, or find alternative income sources without losing your eligibility for assistance. EAPs often include access to financial and legal advisers who can help you prepare for lapses in income, or you can retain a private fiduciary financial planner (https://www.napfa.org/).
  • Rhodes notes that the Social Security Administration offers an excellent Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool that walks you through what federal benefits you’re entitled to based on your work history, marital status, health and other factors with a simple questionnaire. Try it out at https://ssabest.benefits.gov/.

For some workers with disabilities, the pandemic brought surprising benefits.

Facing the next step

Going on short-term disability is scary, and you don’t know what comes after. But you said it yourself: You know it’s the next best step. And just in case you’re thinking it means you’re “giving up”: It’s a strategic necessity. Taking disability leave will let you focus on managing your health and making plans.

And try not to get ahead of yourself. You may feel you should keep all your options open by working part-time while intermittently claiming disability leave. But that could sabotage your chance at recovery, the same way working through vacations defeats the purpose of taking them.

Also, Rhodes notes, there’s generally an even longer waiting period to qualify if you find you need long-term disability benefits. If you’re working on and off during the preceding months, “you’re eating up your short-term disability and not meeting your waiting period for long-term disability,” says Rhodes. You may end up having to start that new waiting period over without any pay.

Consult your map. Consult the experts. Take in a clear-eyed view of your current situation. Then take the next best step, along with my best wishes for you.

Reader query: This column just scratches the surface of all the considerations of incorporating long-term illness or disability into one’s life. If you have personal experience with this process, what did you find helpful, or what pitfalls can you alert others to? Share your advice at karla.miller@washpost.com.

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