mental health days during Covid, talking about pumping in male-dominated office, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Believable excuses for mental health days during Covid

This is an iteration on the ever-popular topic of what is/isn’t acceptable for “mental health days” (the colloquial usage, meaning “to prevent burn-out,” not for actual mental illness). I know from previous questions that you support the idea of taking 2-3 sick days per year without a physical illness (provided you don’t use a lot of other sick time and it doesn’t negatively impact coworkers).

In past years I’ve just told my manager that I don’t feel well, and since I work for a great company with reasonable managers and paid sick time it’s never been an issue.

However, I’m struggling with what to do during quarantine. We’re all working remotely. My manager knows that my family is being serious about social distancing so it’s unlikely that I’ve managed to catch a cold. If I vaguely tell him that I’m under the weather, he will be worried about me since we’re in a hotspot region for COVID.

I’m probably overthinking this, but what can I tell my manager if I need a sick day to recharge and deal with some accumulated stress? Is there a magical “specific yet vague” phrase I can use that won’t lead to follow-up questions about whether it’s COVID?

People are still getting sick with minor illnesses that aren’t Covid! But I can understand why you want to head off any possible concerns. I’d still stay vague — “not feeling well” — but add in something that makes it clear there’s no cause for alarm, like, “Nothing that resembles Covid, don’t worry.”

2. Talking about pumping in a male-dominated office

I’m a mom and have recently returned back to work and I am breastfeeding, so I need to pump during the day. I’m wondering if I’m breaking some sort of breastfeeding etiquette though.

For background, I am a blue collar project manager in a male-dominated field. I am the only woman in my office. Every time I mention I need to go pump, I get kind of uncomfortable glances from my colleagues. I wish I could just slip off, but sometimes they try to schedule meetings during my pump time and I’m in physical pain if I don’t pump on time. Additionally, I have to refrigerate my milk and pump parts in between washes, and I am given a wide berth whenever I have them.

Is this a case of the men in my office being uncomfortable around the pumping or am I being too overt with it? I am not shy about, “Sorry, I have to go pump, I’ll be back in 15 minutes.” But I am getting a reaction from them as if it’s a gross bodily function. Is this something I need to adjust the way I’m presenting it?

There’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing. You’re being matter-of-fact about something that you should be able to be matter-of-fact about. This is not equivalent to over-sharing about your plans for, say, a toilet visit.

But given that your male coworkers are reacting squeamishly, you have two options. You can continue what you’re doing, figuring that it’s their problem, not yours — which it is. That’s the ideal solution; you shouldn’t need to tiptoe around their weirdly delicate sensibilities. But if your sense is that their squeamishness could ultimately cause issues for you professionally, the more practical calculation might be to be more circumspect (“I have a conflict I can’t move then” vs “I need to pump then”) — not because you should have to, but as a nod to the reality of your office’s outdated mores.

So it really comes down to how much your male coworkers’ discomfort will or won’t affect your ease in working with them and getting the outcomes you want, weighted by how important it is to you to stand on principle. (For some people that might be very important, and for others less so.) But if the question is whether you’re doing something wrong, the answer is no.

3. My company laid people off and then immediately re-hired someone for the same job

The company I work for has been in massive growth mode for a few years, but when COVID hit, two people in my department of 20 were laid off — one who’d been around for a year, the other for three years. Three days later, a new employee started in the department in an identical role to the people who had been laid off. Our manager acknowledged that the optics were bad, but stated that the new guy’s hiring “had been in the works for a while.”

While neither of the people laid off would be described as a “rock star,” they were at least both overall competent and independent workers. I would have thought that it would generally be better to rescind an offer than to lay someone off right before bringing someone new on-board.

I’ve been remote so I haven’t met the new guy face-to-face yet, and I haven’t had to work with him directly so far, but I’m struggling with how to keep my resentment out of it when we do share a project. I recognize that it’s my boss and grandboss (not the new guy) who are responsible for the decision, but I can’t figure out how to express my problem with this to them either.

I’m not worried about my own position, but I am having issues getting around their handling of the situation. Is there a way I can reframe this to myself to salvage my opinion of my managers? Or is there a tactful way I can bring this up to them?

If there were really no performance issues with the two people laid off, then this is an awful thing to do — you don’t eliminate people’s jobs while simultaneously hiring someone new into the exact same role. If there’s more to the story, my guess would be that they wanted to get rid of those two people (because of work quality, because their salaries were high, because they didn’t get along with your manager, or who knows what) and used layoffs as a way to do it. If this was a work issue and they otherwise could have been fired, laying them off is actually a kinder way to go (because they’ll have an easier time getting unemployment and layoffs right now are highly understandable to other employers.).

It’s also possible that if this guy’s hiring was in the works before they knew they’d need to cut people, they judged that he was more likely to do well in the role than the two they cut. If the two who got cut were okay but not great (or worse) and they have reason to think the new guy will be excellent (based on his past achievements), that could explain the decision too.

There’s no way to know exactly what happened without asking outright, and your manager is unlikely to tell you if performance factored into the decision (largely to protect people’s privacy, and because those people themselves might not have been told that). Given that you don’t have the inside scoop, you’re stuck relying on what you know of your manager and your company. Are they generally fair and good managers? If so, I’d assume there’s more to this that you’re not privy to, and just roll forward. If not, that’s your bigger problem anyway, so I’d assume this is one more shady thing but not something you absolutely must get to the bottom of.

As for the new guy, he didn’t do this, so I’d try to treat him like you would any other new coworker.

4. How to handle informational interviews requests when I’m still very junior

I am an early career professional working in sustainability — a very hot field! I completely understand that there’s a pandemic/economic downturn and all, but I have had an extraordinary amount of informational interview requests — like one a week during the pandemic. I’m flattered, but my time … is not free. People are also often explicitly asking about open positions I have no influence over, and I also feel like I’m not necessarily qualified to do informational interviews. I am 3.5 years into my first job and position.

What’s the best way to decline, offer other resources, or be clear about expectations? I am all about giving back/helping others but this is too much for me. Could I record a video or voice memo to send back, or is that tacky? I know you have discussed informational interviews before but as a young professional I would really appreciate more guidance.

Actually, you might be very well-positioned to help some of these people, despite being early in your career. You’re probably where they want to be in three to five years, so you’re a good person to talk about how you got to where you are, what things they should know, what surprised you, what challenges you’ve encountered, and so forth. In fact, you might be better positioned to speak to give them advice than someone with 10+ years of experience, because where they are is more recent for you. True, you probably can’t speak to them with the perspective of a hiring manager in your field, but your perspective and experience is valuable in a different way.

That doesn’t mean you need to respond to them all though! One request a week is a lot, and most people wouldn’t be able to do that many. But your idea to record a video or voice memo isn’t tacky! That way you can send it to everyone who contacts you, rather than turning down a lot of them. It’s similar to what I recommended to this recent letter-writer (in her case I suggested something written, but either is fine). The other advice in that post will probably help as well.

5. I can hear my husband working … and he’s good!

I know you’ve gotten some letters about people learning their spouse is a bad employee during this pandemic. We have a small house and my husband works downstairs at the dinner table and I work upstairs in an open loft/office space so I can hear him. I’m not surprised at all, but he’s so nice, polite, and helpful to his customers, and I’ve heard him assisting his coworkers and going above and beyond to help those that have kids (we don’t have any). I just thought it would be refreshing for you to hear something positive.

It is! Thank you.

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