It is time to stop penalizing employees when they legitimately take days off for the good of their mental health says Lynda Shaw.

The need for an employer to approve time off for an employee who is feeling mentally or emotionally unwell is as important as for someone who is physically unwell.  By encouraging communication and using emotional intelligence, businesses have a chance to show employees their full support and as a direct consequence, employees will be more loyal, motivated and engaged, which should be the goal of any business.

Some companies in the US and Australia offer ‘duvet days’ as part of employment contracts, whereby employees are allowed up to four days a year on top of their holiday entitlement to take time to recover and rest as and when they need them.

However, stress and mental health are two very different problems. If you are suffering from mental health problems the support and understanding is still simply not there because of the stigma attached to mental health issues. An open door policy and long term planning and support is needed from the employer.  In contrast someone who is feeling anxious or depressed and legitimately just needs a few days off work, because perhaps of a temporary over-stressful home situation, or because they are struggling to cope emotionally with a loss, should be regarded in the same way as someone who needs a few days off because of a physical illness such as a virus.

We are a very stressed workforce who multitask like no other generations ever have. Too much stress is simply not good for employees or the business. Flight or fight is a one-off reaction to a perceived challenge or pressure but being continually in this state means that cortisol and adrenalin are constantly being overly-stimulated which affects our brain and most likely other major organs as well.  The mental effects of too much stress include mentally slowing down, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and an inability to solve problems in a logical sequence and so a very stressed employee is largely of little use in the workplace anyway.

A survey of 2500 employees in 2015 by healthcare provider Benende showed that only 17% thought that mental health was a good reason to take a day off, in comparison to an illness such as vomiting, which was accepted by 73% as a good reason to take a day off.

Someone who is under extreme stress is likely to feel unsupported, anxious and/or depressed and they are often forced to feign a physical illness in order to take a much-needed day off work. If we could be honest with our employers and give a legitimate reason why we need to take “a mental health day” we could breed loyalty rather than guilt and resentment, allowing ourselves to fully recover and return to work motivated and productive.

Preventative measures are important to boost productivity and creativity in the workplace: “The byproducts of stress hormones can act as sedatives leaving an employee feeling extremely lethargic and unproductive. With the normal working day starting at 9am, if not earlier, and the average bed time of adults being 23.10, we do not allow ourselves enough time to recover and return to our fully-functioning selves which only exacerbates the situation. Having flexi-working hours helps.”

Tips to increase mental health at work

  1. As long as they work core hours, allow employees the opportunity to start work at 10am if that suits their normal bio-rhythms better. Many experts argue that this is the optimum time for starting work as it allows employees to have a full night’s sleep and perhaps get some exercise and fresh air first thing in the morning.
  1. Be open about mental health. Creating an environment where mental health is not a taboo subject means that employees are far more likely to be honest about how they’re feeling which means that you can activate effective strategies to help them before it becomes a bigger problem.
  1. Have an open door policy for anyone who feels they are suffering emotionally or mentally to come and discuss how the business can help.
  1. Be supportive of employees and their occasional need for a mental health day. Lack of managerial support is one of the most commonly cited factors in the cause of stress.

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Dr Lynda Shaw is a change specialist, regular professional speaker, chartered psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist and author. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and Fellow and ... (Read More)

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