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Should Companies Offer Distinct Mental Health Days?

A full-time worker in Australia gets 10 paid sick days off per year. And not just for a cough. On days when our mental health takes a dive, we don’t need to show up in the office. 

But those days are also for the flu, colds, stomach bugs and anything else that might lay us out flat: all the reasons that don’t come with the fear of others judging us. 

According to a survey by Aetna International, “employees are twice as likely to take time off for a physical health issue than a mental health problem”. 

And even if someone does take leave for mental health, there’s a good chance they won’t admit it. When the ABC asked, most people “felt their workplace was too ‘old school’ to accept their need for time off.” In the UK, a survey found “Ninety-five percent of employees have taken time off work due to stress, but gave their employer a different reason for their absence.” 95! 

A lot of people don’t count Mental Health Days as a legitimate reason to stay in bed or to take time off to just read and walk or visit a friend. Instead, we call it “pulling a sickie”. Or we don’t take a day at all, working until we’re stressed, burnt out and on the point of a breakdown.

Taking a day off for our mental health might be legal, but that doesn’t always mean it feels like it’s allowed.

But what if companies changed their policies? 

Paid Mental Health Days

Businesses might not want to add more paid leave. But it’s been shown “for every $1 a workplace spends on making their workplace more mentally healthy, in the long-term they recouped $2.30 on average”. Of course, it shouldn’t be about money. But if that’s what it comes down to, the bottom line still supports mental health. 

So, recoup the cost and add paid Mental Health Days. 

These aren’t for the flu. They’re not additional vacation. They are there for employees who need the time off but don’t feel like they should use those 10 days of regular sick leave to deal with stress or anxiety. 

The Perks

Employees get needed time off. The pandemic has been a double whammy: not only are we feeling more stressed, but we’re working longer hours. In Australia last year, we worked an average of 32 more minutes a day. That’s 2.5 hours a week, according to the Economist, though other data shows even larger increases in hours. “A 2020 mid-pandemic survey showed Australians were working 5.3 hours of unpaid overtime on average per week, up from 4.6 hours the year before.”

As a Gallup poll shows, at the beginning of the pandemic, ​​employee engagement “shot up—reaching a new high of 40% (and 41% for remote workers) … Meanwhile, well-being sank as worry and stress took their toll.” In a time when we were feeling more stress, we doubled down and added more to our plates. 

This doesn’t mean that we’ve produced better work, though. More stress means less creativity, ability to focus and a real drop in motivation, not to mention the physical effects on our bodies. 

Offering paid Mental Health Days gives employees the rest they need, while opening up the conversation around mental health – something that’s still a pressing issue even with the gains we’ve made in recent years. Stigma may have decreased, but it’s still very much a looming problem in and out of the office.

When a company offers paid Mental Health Days, it also makes it clear where their priority lies: with their employees’ wellbeing. It gets rid of the “will they or won’t they?” when it comes to negative ramifications for taking time off for mental health. Creating a policy where there’s no question takes the unknown out of the equation for someone who already has enough on their plate.

And employees feel more valued. Adding these days acknowledges that they’re worn out. It shows appreciation for their wellbeing. It makes it clear they don’t need to push themselves to the brink of an emotional breakdown to be a valued employee. 

Instead, it sends the message that their need for rest is legitimate. That they can take time off instead of working themselves to the point of quitting. Paid Mental Health Days give employees permission to say when things become too much and the ability to reset.

Long-term solutions

Of course, anyone suffering from depression or a mental health-related illness will agree that one day off can’t fix everything. And if work’s a key factor causing someone to burnout, one day off isn’t the solution. The unrealistic workload that they’ve been trying so hard to keep up with will still be waiting when they return. And that co-worker they can’t seem to get along with? They’ll be there too. 

But this doesn’t mean that there’s no point. Mental Health Days just shouldn’t be the only option on offer. There should be a larger effort in any organisation to support their employees, whether that’s training Managers, offering stipends, providing access to resources or in-office wellness days: a clear message that mental health is important across the board. 

Even if they’re not the entire answer, they could be an important stepping stone to a healthier workplace. 

So if your company isn’t offering additional paid Mental Health Days, the question isn’t why should they, but why not?