An employee has just left you a message saying they are taking a mental health day?
Is that even a thing?
The fact you are reading this blog means you are probably experiencing a range of emotions including concern, confusion and disbelief as you come to terms with this latest workplace issue.
Mental or Physical Health, Does it Matter?
Let me tackle one thing up-front. There is no difference between mental or physical health, not when it comes to ‘sick’ leave or ‘personal’ leave. If your employee left a message saying they had tested positive for covid and are too ill to work…you wouldn’t be reading this blog. You would (hopefully) understand, wish them better and sympathise with their condition. You wouldn’t question things too much; you’d get on with your day.
Basically, physical health is easier for many of us to understand. Coughs, colds, migraines, back pain…human beings fall ill and we all experience it. I do not know anyone who would struggle to understand that.
We now live in a world where it is widely acknowledged that illness includes both mental and physical conditions. As an employer, your first step must be acknowledging this.
Why a Mental Health Day?
Broadly speaking these are days where workers look to alleviate stress and burnout. You see, the world is more aware and more tuned-in to mental health than ever before. Among the youngest workers (Gen Z), a recent study has shown 82% expect mental health days from their employers. How come? Well, Gen Z report higher levels of stress and anxiety than any other age group. They are more likely than other age groups to have received treatment or therapy for these issues. And…they expect employers to acknowledge and support their mental health needs. Hence…Mental health days now exist.
A mental health day is not going to solve a more serious underlying mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. What they can do is help a worker recharge their batteries, pause for a moment, and maybe renew their energy levels. It is about helping them reset the clock and come back more productive and maybe less overwhelmed.
Short Term, What Should an Employer Do?
As I see it, there are not many other options. Therefore…Get On Board With It!
If an employee takes a mental health day, they do not need to share information about their mental health with you. An employer has no rights to request evidence about an employee’s mental health. In short, an employee has the right to privacy.
Things change though if the underlying problem with the employee is more serious. If an employee’s mental health could be a risk to themselves or others around them, they should be communicating that with you.
Likewise, if an employee is absent for 7 days or more, then the employer should be asking for a ‘fit note’. At this stage things have gone beyond a mental health day to something more long term and potentially more serious.
Long Term, What Should an Employer Do?
Today, you are reading this blog because you have been hit with the unexpected. You are having to think on your feet and react with some limited information. A long-term vision and appropriate company culture will significantly help you feel more control of the situation.
Firstly, you need to foster an environment where mental health is not a taboo subject. You need to create a culture and rhetoric where everyone in the organisation can talk about mental health without prejudice. You need regular catch-ups, frequent communication and you need to be mindful about some of the warning signs suggesting an employee needs a break. You need to be on the front foot and make sure mental health is on the agenda when it comes to employee wellbeing.
Secondly, you need to erase a company culture of presenteeism. Are your team taking their full allocation of holidays? It is such a simple step, but make sure you encourage employees to have a proper break.
Finally, maybe you can go all in. Organisations are taking things much further. LinkedIn gave the entire workforce a week off to recharge their batteries. Other organisations have followed suit by having designated times for employees to have mental health breaks.
Does it Work?
That is the question. Does a mental health day work? Maybe!
In 2021-2022 the UK lost 17 million working days to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Mental health days are a means of employers trying to tackle this growing problem. But, for me it is a reactionary consequence of a mental health pandemic. A mental health day does not address a mental health condition.
Taking one day-off does not solve the underlying factors of stress and burnout being experienced in the workplace. At best it is a sticking plaster. Those factors are still there when a worker returns to work. Yes, they maybe rested and better prepared after a mental health day…but they still exist.
Employees do report benefits of a mental health day. But, the majority report these benefits lasting only a few days, with mental health returning to their same levels pre-break.
I think the point is a mental health day alone is not enough. Employers need to look at a bigger picture and a cultural shift where they nurture and support employees.
And For The Employee?
Part of the problem is that in many cases a worker drops a mental health day on their employer’s desk without warning. And it then begs the question…what has the employee done to prepare for their mental health day?
I would have some concerns if a worker tells me out of the blue that “…Today, I won’t be in work I’m having a mental health day…”. It leaves me thinking there is a more serious underlying problem, the worker could be pulling a ‘sickie’ or I question my company culture. Is it so bad someone really can’t give me some warning about this? I guess mental health is still an awkward subject, and that cuts both ways (for employees and employers). Communication is therefore very important.
I also think an employee should think and plan how they are going to relax and recharge their batteries. It is okay to watch TV in your pyjamas, but equally maybe it is about going for a hike, a swim or reading a good book. Everyone is different. But, I don’t want to learn you spent the day in a bar or just flicking through your phone.
As an employee you need to answer the question “…what am I going to do to recharge my batteries…”
Mental Health Days are now part of the HR landscape. Ten years ago, they didn’t exist, and today 82% of Gen Z expect them. They seem to have evolved in the face of increased mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. I personally question whether a mental health day delivers what it promises. In the same breath though, I think it is far better to embrace it, and do so with a view of a bigger picture. Employers have a duty of care; and they really do want to look after their staff. Therefore, be proactive and not reactive in thinking about protecting and improve mental health at work.
About The Author
Simon Royston is the founder and Managing Director of The Recruitment Lab (A recruitment agency with offices in Aldershot and Brighton that offers employment services across Berkshire, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex and beyond). Simon lives in Guildford and has worked in Recruitment for over a decade. He has a degree and a masters in psychology as well as a diploma in Human Resource Management. If you would like to know more about anything written in this blog or would simply like to express your own thoughts and opinions do not hesitate to contact Simon through The Recruitment Lab website.