By: Shanna B. Tiayon, PhD
This might be a controversial statement but I wholeheartedly believe that mental health days are a legitimate use of employee sick leave.
To be clear a mental health day is not related to leave taken due to serious mental health disorders. Instead, it’s a day taken off from work for the sole purpose of mentally and physically recovering from work related stressors. Thinking of sick leave as only for physical illness or serious mental health disorders misses the original intention of introducing sick leave into employee benefits programs – to facilitate the wellbeing of employees.
Perhaps my perspective on mental health days is skewed, because growing up the concept was introduced to me at a very young age. Starting when I was in elementary school my mother would periodically let me stay home to “play hooky” from school. We called those days mental health days. On those days I spent my time watching T.V., playing games and sleeping; doing non-school related activities. The idea that I needed a break from time to time, beyond what the weekend provided, was normalized for me.
The Stigma Surrounding Mental Health Days
Needless to say I was surprised when I entered the workforce as a young adult to learn of the stigma associated with fully disclosed mental health days in the workplace. These types of respite were fine as long as the employee "paid for it" by using their vacation leave, which has a cash value to employees in most organizations; but not as a legitimate sick leave day.
The perspective that sick leave must only be used for physical illness is more a reflection of norms and culture, not policy (at least in most companies). I believe that the stigma associated with mental health days is a reflection of Western conceptions of health that focus primarily on the physical and fails to embrace the mind/body continuum. Thus, short of serious mental health disorders or bereavement, the U.S. work culture doesn’t recognize mental health as a legitimate excuse to miss work.
The stigma around mental health days has resulted in employees lying about their reason for taking sick leave. Thirty-five percent of respondents to a 2016 Career Builder survey, of more than 3,100 full-time workers, reported that they called out sick when they were not (I suspect this number to be much higher nationally). Of the 35%, 24% said they did so because they needed to relax and 18% to catch up on sleep.
An Ounce of Prevention
Similar to doctor’s appointments for wellness check-ups, mental health days are a preventative health care measure. There is a documented connection between lack of recovery from work and physical and mental illness. The demands, interpersonal interactions and overall environment at work are potential sources of stress. Such stress has both psychological and physiological effects on employees. When employees are unable to reestablish their non-stressed psychological and physiological states, it can result in serious adverse health outcomes. Mental health days mitigate the effects of work stress, therefore preventing more serious illness.
Some Caveats and Suggestions
To my mom’s credit there was a performance criteria connected to my ability to take mental health days; I had to do well in school. If I was failing my classes she may have been less open to the concept of mental health days. Similarly, in the workplace there should be a performance element linked to mental health days. Also, I am not condoning the abuse of mental health days – à la four-day trip to Jamaica all logged as sick leave!
What I am advocating for is twofold. First, the ability for employees and managers to have honest discussions about their mental health needs in the workplace. Second, for organizations to view helping employee’s maintain their psychological wellbeing as just as much of an organizational responsibility as encouraging wellness checkups. There should not be any shame or taboo in an employee telling their manager they need a mental health day and they want to use their sick leave for it. Until there can be an honest dialogue about this, employees will continue to lie about sick leave.
While I am hopeful the stigma around mental health days will eventually change in the workplace, I know it won’t be tomorrow. In the meantime, managers who are interested in supporting their employees in this way can try these suggestions:
1. Autonomy and Breaks. Autonomy at work greatly helps employees to manage their psychological wellbeing, by having control over how they work. Employees with autonomy are more likely to take breaks during the workday. Intermittent breaks offer a form of recovery at work. Support the practice of your employees taking breaks or walks outside during the workday. The best way to do this is to model it by doing it yourself.
2. Disconnection. It does your employees no good if during their mental health day or extended vacations there is the obligation for them to remain connected to work. Employees who are unable to disconnect during recovery periods receive little to no benefit from the time off. So resist the temptation to request responses to emails or execution of work tasks when your employees are off from work.
3. Communication and Action. Be direct with your employees that you want to support them and that you are open to the concept of mental health days. If the idea of sanctioning this as a qualified sick leave is too much against the grain for you, consider offering your employees compensatory time (comp time) to serve the same purpose. Comp time is discretionary time off given by the manager, usually for excessive overtime worked by the employee or after a high stress work project.