Sometimes, when the pressures of life and work reach a boiling point, it’s helpful to take a mental health day to recharge our batteries. But in many workplaces that’s simply not an option, so we take a sick day instead. We find ourselves covering up a very real issue by telling our boss that we woke up with pink eye again.
As those who suffer from (or are prone to) anxiety and depression know well, mental illness can be just as debilitating as any physical illness. Unlike a cold or the flu (or pink eye, for that matter), which are more immediately apparent and quickly curable, depression and anxiety often don’t come with physical symptoms, nor are they easily treatable.
Not only that, they’re also a lot more common than we think. According to World Health Organization estimates, about 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder in the United States, affecting 40 million adults, or about 18% of the population. Not surprisingly, studies show that workplace stress is a key concern among those who suffer from mental disorders. In a 2018 survey, researchers found that close to 70 percent of the 1,600 respondents stated that their work experience negatively impacted their mental health.
This all begs the question: If we take sick days when we have the cold or the flu, why aren’t mental health days acceptable in the workplace?
In this article we’ll look at a few things related to this question:
The reasons why mental health days aren’t yet common in many workplaces
How employers can create an environment in which people suffering from mental illness can feel more welcome
Ways to cope with workplace stress and mental illness
Let’s get started.
1. The lingering stigma around mental health
A lot of people suffering from mental disorders feel ashamed about informing their employer that they need a day off, mainly because there’s still a stigma that surrounds mental health issues in our society. Even though a lot of progress has been made in relation to this, there’s still a lingering sense that mental health concerns are somehow less legitimate, that people should “just suck it up and get to work like the rest of us”.
And that attitude is precisely why people often don’t feel comfortable talking openly about what they’re going through with their employer. According to a 2017 survey of workers in the UK, 58% of 1,000 respondents said they wouldn't be comfortable telling their manager if they were diagnosed with a mental health issue, and just 20% thought their manager was equipped to support workers with such issues.
Because of this, people with mental health concerns feel like they’re forced to speak in codes or euphemisms: they take a “sick day,” “personal day,” or “wellness day.” According to the same survey, 26% of respondents had taken a day off work due to stress and then lied about the reason. This data shows that, at least for a significant subset of the population, lying about their condition to an employer is not unusual. More importantly, it shows that people don’t think their employers will accept their condition, or don’t trust their employer enough to tell them the truth. And that’s a big problem.
So, what can employers do to rebuild that trust and be more accepting of people with mental health disorders?
2. Create a safe and welcoming environment
One of the best things an employer can do to rebuild trust and create a safe and accepting work environment is to be approachable and open when people need to discuss a personal matter, including a mental health concern. Naz Beheshti explains: “In teams with a solid foundation of trust, individuals will feel safe and comfortable coming forward with personal struggles that might impact their work. Investing in trust pays off in higher performance and improved mental health.”
This is a lot more difficult than it sounds for two reasons: 1) it needs to be an organization-wide initiative, and 2) it takes dedicated education and training. Mental health training and education programs, not to mention consultants, are available and should be utilized across organizations, especially by those in senior management.
But it’s not just about showing your people (or the media) that you care; it’s about actually caring. Caring doesn't mean just paying lip service. Rather, it means embracing mental illness as an acceptable reason not to come into work, and giving people ample time to rest and recover. It also means respecting the privacy of people who voluntarily share their health issues with you. Don’t pry or speak publicly about why someone isn’t at work that day.
Caring also means being respectful of their condition, whatever it may be. Remember, it’s already very difficult for someone to admit that they suffer from mental health issues, and they’ve chosen to share that information with you for a reason. Don’t break their trust or overstep their boundaries.
3. Coping with mental health in the workplace
First and foremost, if you feel like your job is making your mental health worse, don’t be afraid to take a mental health day now and again. Even if you feel like you can’t approach your employer yet because they refuse to acknowledge the severity of mental health issues, or that doing so will make you anxious, take a day off to get the help you need. Yes, even if you have to call it a sick day.
If certain aspects about your workload or role need to be changed in order for you to better cope, talk to your employer (only if you feel comfortable doing so) about changing things up. This can mean a reduced workload, working on different projects, or finding more flexible hours.
Another great way to cope with the pressures of the workplace is to take time for yourself whenever you can while at work. Take breaks, go on walks, go to the gym, or go out for coffee. Do whatever you have to do in order to get some physical as well as psychological space. Reports show that time away from our desks is a good way to ease our minds, make us more productive, and return our focus.
Lastly, if you can, take a vacation. You don’t even need to go anywhere. Just getting away from the stress of the workplace for a week or two is often enough to recenter and recharge our batteries.
Mental health is as serious as physical health, if not more so, and should be treated as such by employers. Becoming aware and knowledgeable about mental health issues, especially how to respond to it, is the responsibility of employers. Doing so creates a safe environment for all employees and builds trust and loyalty in organizations. Plus, it just makes sense.