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Your Most Pressing Work Questions Answered

Your Most Pressing Questions Answered

Robin Lehr

Q. My daughter has been waking up with nightmares for more than a week. As a result, I'm physically and emotionally exhausted. Is this a legitimate reason for me to take a mental-health day?

A. Go ahead and call in sick. After all, it's the symptoms, not the diagnosis, that count. Physical exhaustion and the stress of comforting a hysterical child night after night can make you groggy, cranky, achy, and queasy -- the same way you'd feel if you were getting a bug. And those are absolutely legitimate reasons to stay home. "You wouldn't share the gory details if you couldn't go to work because of diarrhea," says Gabriela Cora, MD, a psychiatrist and executive coach in Miami. In fact, by staying home and taking a nap, you reduce the chances that your weary immune system will lose out to a contagious bug. That said, don't make a habit of calling in sick like this. You don't want to be truly ill next month and find yourself with no days left to take.

Q. My husband's firm doesn't offer paternity leave, but I'm having twins and I need him home for the first few weeks. He's afraid he'll lose standing at his good-ol'-boy company if he even asks for time off. No one's ever done it.

A. Sounds like he's working for someone who has some outdated ideas about fatherhood. And your husband's not alone -- despite the fact that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies to workers regardless of their sex. But don't be intimidated. Ask your husband to check with human resources to see if he's entitled to government-mandated 12 weeks unpaid leave. If not, he should use vacation days. "It might take a little courage, and he may suffer somewhat for it when he goes back to work, but if he's a highly valued employee, it'll soon be forgotten," says Robert Drago, PhD, professor of labor studies at Penn State University. "Not only will your husband be your hero, he'll also be an inspiration for the next new dad at his office."

Q. My baby will only be 3 months old when I go back to work, and I'd like to keep nursing him. Am I legally entitled to pump at work?

A. That depends on your employer's policy and where you live. There is no federal law covering the right to pump on the job -- although 21 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have gotten with the times and have laws in place for breastfeeding in the workplace. (To find out about your state, go to ncsl.org/programs/health/breast50.htm.) If your workplace has a supportive policy and a designated room for nursing moms, you're in luck. But if it doesn't, tell your boss you need to find a place to pump: Could you borrow an office? Use a conference room? Or even, sadly, a supply closet? To help your cause, go into the conversation armed with your estimated pumping schedule as well as statistics about the health benefits of breastfeeding, suggests Linda Meric, director of 9 to 5, a national advocacy group for women in the workplace. Also, don't wait until you're engorged and adjusting to your first day back on the job to have this discussion. Otherwise, you'll feel stressed -- and your boss will feel freaked out and cornered.

Q. I am about to have my third interview for a job I really want. I'm pregnant, though not yet showing. What should I say?

A. Mum's the word. Of course, the new company can't legally decide not to hire you based on your pregnancy, but you would have a tough time proving that was the reason you didn't get the job. "So, wait until you have a verbal offer and have negotiated the details," says Ellen Bravo, professor of women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a specialist in family-friendly workplaces. Then, before the company puts the offer in writing, break the news in a positive way that stresses your excitement about the job and your creative ideas for covering your leave. You'll show good faith by coming clean before you sign on the dotted line, but you'll be somewhat protected because it would be illegal for them to rescind their job offer. You should know, however, that you're likely not going to be covered by FMLA for your leave since you will not have worked there long enough.

Q. The company I work for has a work-at-home policy, but my supervisor is a complete workaholic who wants everyone in the office at all times (even though she has young kids herself!). Is there anything I can do?

A. Smart employers know that work-at-home programs can save them big bucks in office space, help retain good employees -- and cut back on how much of that office coffee they need to buy. But most people have a better chance of getting a ride in the corporate jet than of snagging a sweet work-at-home deal. The fact that your human-resources department has a policy on the books puts you ahead of the game. Try to find out who spearheaded this program -- or which manager allows her staffers to use it -- and ask that person for advice. You might gain some insight into how to approach your supervisor. Also, knowing that it's working elsewhere in the company can be good ammunition when you approach your boss with your request.

Chances are, your supervisor is worried that you'll be home cooing at the baby or napping instead of working (after all, she knows firsthand how distracting those little ones can be). "So part of your request should be detailing what your childcare coverage will be," says Rose Stanley, a telework expert at WorldatWork, a global human-resources association based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Why don't you start small by proposing a trial run, such as a single work-at-home day a week? Then prove yourself on those days not only by being super productive, but by answering all phone calls and e-mails immediately. Your boss might want to give it a try too!

Q. I've been back from my maternity leave for 10 months, and I'm pregnant again. My company is downsizing, so I'm afraid to tell my boss. What should I say and when should I say it?

A. If your company is downsizing and your entire unit is eliminated, you may lose your job along with all your other colleagues -- and there isn't much you can do about that. But the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits an employer from discriminating against you simply because you're pregnant -- no matter how recently you had your last child -- so they can't fire or demote you. What's more, if your company employs 50 or more people and you've worked for at least 1,250 hours in the past year, it must provide up to 12 weeks of leave each year under FMLA. Your employer is not required to pay you, but your job and medical benefits are protected. And if your firm offers disability leave, it must give you the same amount of time off (and compensation) that it offers for other medical conditions.

At some point after your first trimester is over but before your bump shows (wear baggy clothes if you have to), break the news to your boss unapologetically but with a cooperative spirit when it comes to figuring out who will cover for you while you're gone. "Point out which arrangements worked well last time and suggest solutions for whatever didn't go as smoothly as it could have," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a global nonprofit research organization based in New York City.

Q. I'm the only one in my office with a baby, and I fear my coworkers are envious of my flexible schedule. Add in the fact that I rush home at 5 instead of going out to happy hour with everyone like I used to, and I feel totally ostracized. Does balancing work and family have to mean losing office friends?

A. Do they also scream when you get a blue cup and they get a red one? Oh, wait, that's the kids. Coworkers don't care so much about cups, but leaving at the stroke of 5 p.m. to pick up the baby at daycare can definitely incur their petty jealousies. What they might not realize is that you've actually done them a favor by breaking the ice about flextime in your office. They could need the same benefit in order to care for an elderly parent, take a college course, or even get home to a child of their own someday. "When the time comes and you can give them advice on how to negotiate a flexible schedule, you'll see resentments melt away," says Nancy Glube, of Human Resources Consortium, a management-consulting firm in Atlanta. In the meantime, consider the possibility that they're not upset -- and that it's just you feeling self-conscious and disconnected. Of course, to maintain good relationships at work, the most important thing is to make sure you keep pulling your weight. Having a baby isn't an excuse to dump stuff on other people. But it wouldn't hurt to invite coworkers out to lunch now and then -- or even arrange for someone else to get home for the baby so you can join in at the occasional happy hour, just like you did in the old days.

Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Parents magazine.