Keeping the need for my sabbatical secret is not realistic. Finding a replacement instructor and delays in my research will cause inconvenience to multiple parties.

What steps can I take to reduce embarrassment and protect my reputation as much as possible? This request will surprise most people in the department.

  • 11
    It seems to me that keeping the concrete reason secret will be by far the most effective way to protect your reputation. Is it not possible to come up with a generic "sabbatical for serious medical reasons" explanation for your colleagues, between you and the dean? I find it hard to believe that a dean would not want to help protect the reputation of her or his faculty by not blurting out the details behind your leave too widely.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 10:23
  • 4
    See academia.stackexchange.com/questions/8557/… regarding the meaning of "sabbatical" in academia.
    – StrongBad
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 14:06
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    As Peter Clark writes in his answer, these are widely considered to be medical conditions. In the USA, there is a law (HIPAA) that protects the privacy of medical information. There may be similar laws where you are, if you are not in the USA. You should be allowed to simply say you are taking medical leave and then say you'd rather not talk about it, if pressed. Commented May 23, 2016 at 14:53
  • 5
    I can't speak for academia in the US, but in my experience a short "formal" communication from a senior member of the organization to all his/her subordinates is a good way to (1) ensure everybody who needs to know that you will be absent does in fact know, and (2) discourage gossip - the message could say something like "please respect X's wishes not to discuss the details of this medical leave with his/her colleagues at this time".
    – alephzero
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 22:47
  • 2
    Unfortunately my experience of trying to normalise mental health issues by being (relatively) open about them (I suffer from OCD) at work was quite negative. I argued to myself that if I had to take time off work because I had a broken arm there would be no shame or embarrassment in mentioning this. Many people do not understand mental health problems.
    – jim
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 23:13

2 Answers 2


This is a tough question, and you have my sympathies.

A sabbatical is time off from on-campus responsibilities given to enhance your long term scholarly life. It varies in its implementation from place to place (and in fact they do not exist at my institution), but most commonly you propose travel and research plans.

Alcoholism and mental health issues are two kinds of recognized medical problems. It is my understanding that you do not take a sabbatical because of medical problems; rather you go on medical leave of one kind or another. Trying to hide medical problems under cover of a sabbatical sounds, at the least, to be very risky, and you seem to recognize that this is not practical in your case. So I would recommend that you look into going on medical leave instead of sabbatical.

Treatment of either of your medical issues will probably involve a psychiatric / counseling component. I am not a psychiatrist or a counselor (rather, I am a mathematician: really not close!), but I would humbly and tentatively suggest that even before you go on medical leave you seek some counseling. In particular you mention the embarrassment of being sick in the way that you are. I think it is completely normal and understandable for you to feel embarrassed / ashamed about these problems, but those kinds of feelings could lead you down very unproductive paths, so I suggest that you concentrate some of your earliest counseling sessions on dealing with that. In particular, a counselor probably has very helpful things to tell you about disclosing your problems to others: whether, when, how much, and to whom. As far as I know, it should be possible for you to get the same medical leave and considerations as someone with less socially stigmatized medical problems without having to disclose the details of your medical issues to anyone in your department, unless you want to.

I wish you all the best. I hope you do take medical leave and get knowledgeable, helpful care.

  • 25
    "suggest that even before you go on medical leave you seek some counseling." I think this is very wise advice. Sometimes a simple session or two with a counselor can make a world of difference. Additionally, they may even advise one to keep working (but maybe with less hours) in order to keep the brain stimulated and not using excess free time obsessing on the problems at hand. A lot of times this only elevates anxiety and depression as opposed to alleviates it; humans are "doers" and so doing something is healthy for the mind. Great answer.
    – 8protons
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 15:17
  • 1
    "sounds, at the least, to be very risky" -- among other risks, you might be depriving your employer of the opportunity to claim on their insurance to help cover whatever inconveniences the absence causes them, and you might find the process for arranging a sabbatical is rather slow. Commented May 23, 2016 at 16:36
  • Curious why there's an assumption that @julio isn't currently in therapy. As asked, there's no indication either way. As respectful as the answer attempts to be in this area, it projects a potentially false assumption. Better to suggest that they do if not currently doing so already, instead of making the assumption on incomplete information.
    – casperOne
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 12:04
  • 2
    I will also point out that in most professional environments, if you say that you need to take medical leave, often people will be much more likely to respect your privacy on the matter. If they ask you what your illness is, it is usually sufficient to say that it's not life threatening, and you'd rather not go into the details.
    – David K
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 13:04
  • If you don't volunteer the reason for your medical leave request, it's rare for anyone to ask. You will probably need to tell the person who approves such leave (department head or human resources person), but (s)he will certainly protect your privacy if you ask him/her to.
    – Jeffiekins
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 20:35

Pete has the right answer, but I want to just ask whether you're sure that you want to use a "sabbatical" for this. Do you have tenure? Are you in the United States?

A sabbatical is a research leave. At many/most institutions, you'll be expected to do research or publications during your sabbatical leave. If you don't have tenure, you may be losing valuable time off that you need to publish for your tenure dossier.

Rather, I recommend that you work with your dean and ask for FMLA (https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/benefits-leave/fmla) leave -- if you can afford it. Although it is not paid leave, FMLA maintains your health benefits which means you can use it to seek counseling or treatment. Verify that your tenure/promotion clock is stopped for the duration.

I don't see treating alcoholism as any different from treating any other serious medical condition and I hope your dean is similarly inclined.

As for embarrassment, just as depression rates are astoundingly high for graduate students, there is considerable alcoholism in faculty ranks. No reasonable person will criticize you for treating a life-threatening disease while you still can.


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