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In an ideal world, taking a mental health day would be simple. Imagine this: You could have 10 per year and use them at your discretion. Or maybe you work at a small company that doesn’t have a formal system for taking time off. In that case it should be as straightforward as talking to your supervisor about why you need one.
You tell your supervisor your depression is acting up. Perhaps your anxiety disorder has been eating you alive lately. Your strained mental health is affecting your productivity, so you need a day off to tend to it, to heal and return with renewed vigor.
She says, “Sure.” There are no questions or judgments, and she is comfortable with you being open about your mental health. She understands the importance of caring for your mental wellness and trusts you are not taking advantage of the policy.
In reality, talking about mental illness or asking for a mental health day at many offices is risky. Only the most progressive companies provide mental health days or create an environment where it is safe to ask for one.
It’s a shame because fostering good employee mental health allows companies to mitigate the lost productivity untreated mental illnesses cause. Each year people with depression miss an average 19 work days and suffer 46 days of reduced productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. By granting mental health days, employers might be able to improve employee mental health and increase overall productivity.
Nonetheless, there are many employers who only see requests for mental health days as warning signs of a problem employee. One of our clients at Talkspace opened up about this. When Ricardo disclosed his mental illness and asked for a mental health day at his old job, he quickly regretted it.
“They use it as a weapon against you,” he said. “They tried to frame me as someone who would snap and was dangerous.”
Ricardo’s company also accused him of abusing drugs, despite not having any evidence. The experience made him hesitant to open up about his mental health issues in the workplace.
Other times companies see mental health days as an excuse to slack off, according to Talkspace therapist Lisa Smith, who also worked in corporate HR for many years. Supervisors are likely to use the disclosure of mental illness against employees, Smith said, unless they work for a very forward-thinking company.
What to Do Until We Live in That Ideal World
Because the mind and body are deeply connected, mental illness is also a physical illness, according to Talkspace therapist Nicole Amesbury, who cited the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of mental illness. Being sick can mean being depressed or having the flu. A sick day can include mental illness.
Unfortunately it seems most employers do not share this attitude. They aren’t thinking about mental health and illness with the more tolerant mindset of mental health organizations and professionals.
Nonetheless, there is hope for all employees who want to take mental health days. If taking a mental health day is the same as taking a sick day, all you need to do is take a few more sick days.
“I believe in calling the office early in the morning and telling the appropriate person you’re taking a sick day, because you don’t feel well,” said Talkspace therapist Samantha White. “It’s not a lie.”
Stress and mental health issues can make us feel sick, White said, similar to a cold or sore throat. Sometimes we need a day off to recuperate.
“We feel unwell and need the day off,” White said. “That’s the bottom line and is all they need to know.”
Until the average employer becomes more understanding and accepting of mental illness, we need to be tactful and cautious about asking for mental health days or disclosing mental illness. There are laws that make it illegal to discriminate against an employee based on a mental health condition. In practice, however, these laws do not necessarily prevent an employer from unfairly firing or forcing an employee out of the company because of their challenges.
For now let’s try to emphasize the value of mental health days and fight the stigma of mental illness. Once more employers realize they are hurting themselves — not only their employees — by stigmatizing mental health days, we might see a shift in attitude.