In July 2017, a US web developer caused a Twitter debate about workplace attitudes towards mental health. It came as a result of an email to her boss entitled ‘Where’s Madalyn” she told colleagues: “I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully, I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%”. Her boss’s response was perhaps somewhat surprising given the stigma still attached to mental health.
Madalyn’s boss, Chief Executive Ben Congleton, responded to the email, saying: “I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations, you are an example to us all”. It poses the question how would your boss have responded?
Legally mental health sick days are no different to physical health sick days. According to the Office of National Statistics, an estimated 141.4 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury in the UK in 2018, the equivalent to 4.4 days per worker. The four most common reasons for sickness absence in 2018 were:
- Minor illnesses (including coughs and colds) 27.2%
- Musculoskeletal problems (including back pain and neck and upper limb problems) 19.7%
- Other conditions (including accidents, poisonings, and diabetes) 13.7%
- Mental health conditions (including stress, depression, and anxiety 12.4%
It is interesting that the data shows people are far more likely to take a sick day because of a physical health issue. It may suggest people are still quite cautious of admitting their absence is because of a mental health issue.
A real fear is still apparent throughout the workplace that disclosing a mental health condition may hamper your career prospects or that you will be unfairly judged. If people do not feel safe or supported in their work environment, disclosing a mental health issue risks doing more harm than good.
In an ideal world nobody should fear saying to their employer “I can’t come in to work today because I’m feeling overwhelmed and really anxious” any more than “ I cant come in today because I’ve got a bad back”
Could introducing a mental health sick day policy benefit your organisation?
If employers are going to consider this approach, it is crucial company wide support towards mental health is in place, with senior management visibly advocating its introduction. This should slowly pave the way and reduce employee fear of reprimand and discrimination because of their mental health condition.
If people are starting to feel overwhelmed, having the confidence to admit they are struggling is brave. If supportive systems exist in the workplace to help people manage their mental health, businesses will benefit significantly. Taking one mental health sick day to avoid several weeks of mental health related absence further down the line can only be a good thing.
A mental health sick day is not about dodging your responsibilities nor should it be recognised as such in the workplace. It is more about helping the person to take back control on their lives, to focus on their self-care and minimising the risk of further mental and physical harm.
Introducing mental health sick days may also address presenteeism problems. People may be less likely to attend work knowing they are not working to the best of their ability. Presenteeism is estimated to cost the UK economy in excess of £15 billion pounds, double the cost of absenteeism.
Presenteeism presents a real threat to business bottom lines. Mental health days may be a way of helping to ensure employees are mentally present and working to maximum productivity 100% of the time.
Mental health sick days are just one of many supportive measures employers could consider in order to help people manage their mental health. They need to form part of a wider mental health strategy if they are going to generate a bottom-line impact. Think about reviewing or creating a collaborative mental health policy with well thought out aims and objectives. Actively encourage everyone to contribute, listen to feedback, gather data, and continually re-evaluate your strategy to achieve the best chance of delivering meaningful outcomes.
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