Blog

Mental health sick days: should they be standard policy?

Written 18 January, 2019, 5 minutes to read

Good employee health is a basic requirement for business success: productivity, collaboration and client relationships simply can’t exist without it. But while company policy and provision around physical health is usually very clear-cut, in many companies the conversation surrounding mental health has yet to be started.

This all seems pretty absurd when it’s reported that only 17% of the US population is functioning at optimal mental health, and that 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year.

So, in an attempt to recognize mental and physical health as equally valid, many companies now openly promote the idea of “mental health sick days”. But should you follow suit? Is this the best way to approach employee mental health? And as a policy, is it enough?

Mental health and the workplace

The lack of open dialogue around mental health in the workplace is understandable, since the subject is still drenched in taboo and ignorance.

Discussing personal health is already a delicate matter, but for those who suffer from poor mental health, it’s infinitely harder. Non-scientific press has managed to reduce a complex body of different issues into one crude misrepresentation: that mentally unwell people are somehow “dangerous”.

Sidestep the reality that the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by people without mental health problems, there’s also the social stigma of “weakness” to contend with. Poor mental health is often treated as an affectation, instead of a highly irrational and debilitating medical illness. Unlike physical illness, it doesn’t easily manifest itself – so many mentally well colleagues find it hard to empathize or even believe mentally poorer ones.

Just because employees don't always openly raise mental health problems, don’t assume they’re not happening. Many employees still choose to quote “regular” physical illness to take time off for mental health – and that’s completely fine; it’s entirely up to your employees to decide whether they want to discuss it. But your company still needs to create the conditions to allow people to talk about it comfortably – and that starts with providing a clear policy on employee mental health.

Why you need to address employee mental health

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to create a working culture that openly supports mental health on equal terms to physical health; free from judgement, ignorance and fear. And this isn’t just a “nice to have” – it’s an actual legal requirement.

Even if an employee’s mental health issue isn’t directly connected to work, employers still have a basic duty of care to ensure reasonable changes are made to support them. Within UK and European law, mental health is classed as a disability equal to physical, intellectual and medical conditions – so it shouldn’t be treated any differently by employers.

Law aside, it’s also in your company’s best interest to have mentally healthy employees. In the UK alone, it costs £2.4bn each year to replace staff lost to mental health conditions, and businesses stand to save up to £8 billion annually by supporting better mental health.

A mentally exhausted employee simply won’t be able to give their best performance. Productivity, quality and efficiency all suffer as a result of unsupported mental health, with one study finding that:

  • 57% of sufferers find it harder manage several tasks
  • 80% find it hard to focus
  • 62% take longer to complete tasks

But beyond the purely transactional, showing that you recognize the full spectrum of your employees’ health speaks volumes about your values. A business built on trust, respect and support wins every time – people are more motivated, happier and more likely to stay. To mean anything, your company culture needs to include and represent everyone in it – and that means ensuring everyone’s needs are met, fairly and honestly.

Are “mental health sick days” the answer?

In view of recent research and awareness campaigns, more employers are deciding to openly offer employees “mental health sick days” – which is defined as taking a day off work sick for reasons other than physical illness.

How do mental health days work?

The term is deliberately vague and non-prescriptive – it doesn’t stipulate that you can only take one if you’re experiencing anxiety, stress or depression; anyone who feels their mental health is at risk can take leave. And there’s no assumption that you should spend the day immobile either – while some may use it to see a GP or specialist, others may use it to do something active. Mental health sick days are offered without judgement as a space where people can rest, recover and rebuild, however they find fit.

How do employees take one?

Just as they would take a physical sick day – usually with an email or quick call explaining they are too unwell to come in. Ideally, people should feel comfortable enough to state it’s for mental health reasons, but that shouldn’t be pressured or expected either way.

Should employers encourage mental health days?

Many companies argue mental health days should be offered openly and clearly as standard practice.

It certainly seems like a good idea in view of recent research – while 60% of chief executives see employee mental health as a priority, only 16% have a defined strategy in place to help them. And, given that 43% of office-based employees from a separate study didn’t know whether they were allowed to take leave for mental health, having an openly defined policy around it makes a huge amount of sense.

But there’s a difficult trade-off to consider: while we need to raise awareness of an employee's right to take leave for mental health reasons, separating out policy for mental health continues the idea that it is in some way supplementary to an employee’s general health.

Ideally, every company should get to the stage where it doesn’t need explicit “mental health sick days”: all sick days should include mental and physical health without need for the distinction.

How else can you support employee mental health?

While perhaps a necessary first step, your mental health policy shouldn’t start and end with mental health sick days. There are a ton of ways employers can support employee mental health and create a robust culture around discussing it.

These resources for employers are a great place to start:

Just remember – while you should broadcast your company’s position on mental health, you shouldn’t demand that people disclose anything about their health. Your role is to protect equal treatment and opportunity among all your employees, provide individual support and enable everyone to be their best self.

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