As mental health conversations begin to become more prominent in society, more companies have begun following the trend by placing greater emphasis on the mental health of their employees. Most commonly, companies have done so in the form of mental health days as a key part of their wellness programmes.
As its name implies, mental health days are essentially paid sick leave that employees can take to recharge and destress. On paper, this sounds like a perfectly sensible solution - employees are able to officially take some time off with the sole purpose of relaxing without the guilt of doing so. The reality is that even before the concept of mental health days was introduced, many employees across industries, demographics, and seniority levels have already been taking mental health days under the guise of other reasons, such as being sick or having family emergencies. In fact, a 2014 study found that 95% of employees had taken time off due to stress but cited another reason for said time off1. This is likely a direct consequence of the deep-rooted stigma surrounding mental health, with employees needing their rest but being unable to be open about it due to feelings of guilt and shame.
Making mental health days an official workplace policy is therefore a step in the right direction, as it begins the process of legitimising mental health as an issue that is just as important as our physical health. However, it should also not be the company’s entire strategy in promoting better mental health in the workplace, as there are - like most things - some areas in which it can be improved.
Why mental health days may not be as effective as think
The concept of a mental health day is simple: Take a day or two off to recharge when you are stressed and mentally exhausted so that you can come back refreshed and ready to kick off again with more gas in the tank. There is no denying that it does work to an extent. A recent study found that 78% of employees who did so returned with greater focus, while 81% of them felt that their burnout symptoms were alleviated2.
However, the main issue here is that these effects tend to only last for a short period of time. 66% of respondents from a similar survey reported that the mental health benefits from their break only lasted for a few days before returning to the same levels before the break3. In other words, mental health days seem to be more of a reactionary, band-aid solution rather than the long-term solution that we imagined them to be. If left as is, this can create a vicious cycle of mental health fluctuations that can occur when we are regularly burning out at work. To truly cultivate a mental health-positive work culture that prioritises our employees’ health and wellbeing, there needs to be more done on a preventive level in terms of mental health support that goes well beyond taking some time off.
Readjusting perceptions on mental health days
To ensure that a company’s mental health solutions are sustainable, we need to proactively address the issues at the core rather than just staving off the symptoms. This means that a change in perception and some forward-thinking is required in order to transform mental health days from a reactionary measure into more of a preventive one.
One possible course of action that some companies have already implemented is to combine their vacation days and sick days into one category. What these changes set out to achieve is to grant employees more flexibility in the use of their off days. This means that, instead of simply granting time off when employees become burnt out, this extra sense of flexibility provides employees with the opportunity to address their mental health concerns at the first signs of any trouble before they are completely burnt out. The added ambiguity of combining sick days and vacation days also serve as an assurance that employees can freely plan for mental health breaks as and when they need to without the guilt or pressure of having to explicitly justify them. These are subtle changes, but when correctly employed, they can help to inculcate a culture of flexibility, trust and understanding that will be more beneficial for employees’ mental wellness in the long run.
Of course, it is uncommon for standalone solutions to be sufficient on their own. To truly build a comprehensive and sustainable workplace mental care programme, we must also consider combining measures like flexible rest days with regular mental health conversations and other workplace-specific solutions. While mental health days may be adequate for resolving personal issues, they do not do much to address the work-related factors that may have played a part in the development of employees’ stress and mental health concerns. This means that employees will not only return to the very same working conditions that caused their exhaustion after the break but will likely continue to do so no matter the number of off days that they take. If this is the case, there might be a need for a work culture overhaul, to transition into one that is more responsive to employee feedback and ultimately more supportive of mental health.
Over to you
It is heartening to see that more employers are beginning to take mental health more seriously by providing the necessary support to employees in the form of mental health days. However, with these intentions, it is also important to keep in mind the necessity of diversifying our approaches. For some, this could mean focusing on more preventive measures. For others, it could refer to the need to shift the company’s policies and practice to more mental health-positive ones. Ultimately, what will determine how well measures such as mental health days will work is dependent on the cohesiveness of our overall mental care programme.
1. Deloitte. (2017). At a tipping point? Workplace mental health and wellbeing.
2. Frye, L. (2018). More People Are Taking Time Off, and That’s Good for Business.
3. American Psychological Association. (2018). 2018 Work and Wellbeing Survey.