Needing to take a day off from work for mental health reasons has been derided in the past. However, as the thinking behind mental health has developed, and attitudes in both the workplace and among managers have also started to shift, perhaps we should all be taking more days away from the office to protect our wellbeing.
Need a day off?
There are days when it’s hard to face work, even when you aren’t physically sick. Should you take a day off for your mental health? If you do, should you be honest about it when informing your manager?
If you work for an organization or in a team where you feel safe to discuss mental health challenges, you are fortunate. However, despite all the progress made in understanding and talking about mental health, stigma, and prejudices are still prevalent enough to prevent many of us from willingly letting bosses and coworkers know when we are struggling.
Mental health challenges come in different forms. For some, it will be a severe lifelong struggle. For many others, the challenge will be periods of feeling overwhelmed by stress and needing a break.
Globally, the World Health Organisation estimates about 970 million people – about one in eight people – are suffering a mental disorder at any time, with anxiety-related conditions affecting about 380 million and depression about 360 million.
These numbers have jumped about 25% since 2019, a rise credited to the social isolation, economic hardship, health concerns, and relationship strains associated with the pandemic.
But declining mental health is a longer-term trend, and work demands have likely played a role. Research identifies three main workplace contributors to mental ill-health: imbalanced job design when people have high job demand yet low job control, occupational uncertainty, and lack of value and respect.
This partly explains why depression and anxiety appear more prevalent in wealthy industrialized nations. In the United States, for example, it is estimated more than half of the population will experience a diagnosable mental disorder at some point during their lifetime.
Managerial attitudes are changing slowly.
For the modern workplace, therefore, mental health is increasingly part of the landscape. But preconceptions and prejudices are hard to shift. People with these challenges are still seen as weak, unstable, or lacking competence.
These attitudes make it even harder for those with diagnosed mental health disorders to find meaningful work and progress in their careers. Like the rest of the population, business executives and managers have limited knowledge of mental health issues or skills to manage them in the workplace.
This blind spot is reflected in the management research literature. The best most recent study of managerial understanding of mental health issues dates from 2014. Only about one in ten human resource professionals and managers felt very confident supporting employees with mental health challenges.
Even when managers understand there are implicit biases against employees with mental health challenges, they may still not know what to do about it.
So it is hardly surprising many employees remain reluctant to disclose their mental challenges to colleagues and managers, fearing a lack of understanding and potential negative consequences to their careers. But keeping it secret and “soldiering on” can worsen mental health.
Framing the conversation
So what to do about it? Research carried out by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University concludes that various points are all critical, starting with leadership.
For all organizations, the study concludes that cultural change can start with leaders and managers speaking more openly about their own mental health challenges. This empowers others to follow suit.
Language choices are essential too. How we talk about mental health can change how we think about it. For example, Australia’s National Mental Health Commission refers to “mental health challenges” instead of “mental illness.” Such framing can help others to regard a mental health day as something that anybody may need, not something for someone “sick.”
For larger organizations, one innovative idea is to have “mental health advocates” – employees with personal experience of severe mental health challenges.
Energy Queensland, an Australian Government-owned utility with about 7,600 staff responsible for maintaining the state’s electricity distribution infrastructure, did this in 2017. Two of its workers, James Hill and Aaron McCann, now work as full-time’ mental health lived experience advocates.’
Hill previously worked for the corporation as an electrician and McCann as a lineworker. Both have lived through deep depression and suicidal thoughts.
The RMIT research which involved surveying more than 300 psychologists, psychiatrists, and others employed in mental health services, suggests “lived experience” advocates encourage more open organizational cultures, helping to break down the stigma stopping others from admitting their mental health challenges.
And a few organizations globally have introduced ‘wellness/wellbeing days’– an allotment of ‘no certificate required’ days off, which can be used at any time, no questions asked.
As the challenge of squeezing greater productivity out of service sectors intensifies and competition for skills and talent escalates, those workplaces that acknowledge and accommodate the mental health stresses of modern life will be the ones with the competitive advantage. It will be interesting to watch how this trend develops.
Have you ever taken a day off work for your mental health? if so, tell us more in the comments.