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Taking time off work to nurture your mental health

Posted by: Jimmy Bower


The alarm goes off, signifying the start of yet another work day, and then it hits you like a ton of bricks. You’ve woken up with a sharp headache, hoarse throat, sniffly nose and a hacking cough to match. You’re far too ill to head into work, so you call in sick and head back to bed. Completely perfect reason to stay home, you’re sick right?

But what if it was something else? What if you felt emotionally exhausted, depressed, anxious, sad, strung out or just fed up? It’s unlikely you’d feel like going to work in that condition either.

Recently, a tweet by @madalynrose went viral after she posted her CEO’s response to taking off time to sort out her mental health. Madalyn sent an email to her colleagues titled “Where’s Madalyn?” and in it she told colleagues: “I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week [feeling] refreshed and back to 100%.”

The next day, her CEO responded. “I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work.”

The post has since received 9,953 retweets and nearly 33,000 likes, and it’s not hard to see why. The stigma around mental health has been slowly changing over the last few years, with society becoming more open to talking about it, and those suffering with mental health issues feeling more comfortable sharing and talking about their experiences.

This is being reflected in work places, with increasing support systems such as counselling, being provided for employees. Japanese marketing agency Hime and Company even give employees paid time off after a breakup, and as you get older more “heartbreak leave” becomes available to you.

Although these changes are to be celebrated, there is still a long way to go. When taking sick leave to address mental health, most people admit that they fake flu or an upset stomach instead of actually telling their boss the truth. Many employees feel that their boss would not take them seriously, or question their devotion to the job.

Those suffering with mental illness should be made to feel secure when requesting sick leave. Employers should be aware that mental health conditions which have a long-term effect on an employee’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities, is classed as a disability under the Equality Act. Therefore reasonable adjustments should be made if possible, so that the employee can continue with their employment.

However, a lack of mental health diagnosis does not actually mean that a person isn’t struggling psychologically with issues such as stress, panic or anxiety. More workplaces need to accept and understand their employees’ needs, both physical and mental. Whether it is a sprained ankle or horrid anxiety, there is no difference between the impacts that they both have on your ability to work.

In 2016, the “Business in the Community’s National Employee Mental Wellbeing” survey assessed workplace mental health in the UK, with over 19,000 respondents. The survey found that: 

- 77% of employees have experienced symptoms of poor mental health at some point in their lives.

- 29% of employees have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

- 62% of employees attributed their symptoms of poor mental health to work or said that work was a contributing factor.

- 60% of board members and senior managers believe their organisation supports people with mental health issues although only 11% of employees had discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager.

- 50% of employees say they would not discuss mental health with their line manager.

- 63% of line managers feel they have to put corporate interests before employee wellbeing.

- 35% of employees did not approach anyone for support the last time they experienced poor mental health.

An employee’s mental health condition may be unrelated to work, however work could be exacerbating the situation. Whilst employers are not accountable for a person outside of work, they do have a duty of care to support their employees and this should extend to mental health. Madalyn’s post received so much positive feedback because for a boss to be so accepting of a mental health day is sadly rare.

According to another survey carried out by British healthcare company AXA PPP, nearly 7 in 10 bosses believe stress, anxiety, or depression are not valid excuses for taking time off work (even though 25 percent have suffered from mental illness themselves!). The results shown above only further prove how much work needs to be put into establishing a better understanding of mental health in the workplace.

Taking a mental health day lets you recharge, resets your perspective and allows your body and mind to rest. When we’re worn out, we can lose our patience and perspective, which can lead to poor performance and poor communication—nothing your boss rates high on the list of employee attributes.

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