Have we normalised mental health days yet?

In recent years, mental health is a topic that has come up with increasing frequency. People all over the world have had a really hard time coping with lockdowns, distanced grieving, lost jobs, lost lifestyles. There’s obviously been a huge catalyst for these conversations, but have we reached the point yet where mental health is taken as a serious issue in workplaces, on the same level as a bout of gastro or a broken leg?

Historically, mental health has held a great deal of stigma. We’ve always struggled to talk about it, to admit how much it is affecting our work and lives. Mental health is one of those things that is often impossible to see from the outside, like an invisible disability, we struggle to comprehend what people are dealing with. We’re slowly learning that maybe you shouldn’t go crazy at the person who parked in that disabled car park when they look perfectly fine, because you have no idea what could be affecting them that you just can’t see. And we are still learning.

A mental health day should be like that car park. An easy stopping point to make it easier to do what you need to do, without having to explain yourself.

Recognising the impact that mental health has on work and productivity is an easy way to see that taking the shame away from letting people know you’re not ok is only going to benefit everyone.

Happy wife, happy life

Although it kills me to use this phrase, in metaphor it rings true. If your colleagues or employees are happy, the whole work environment is more positive and productive than if they are not. How many times have you seen a colleague in an awful mood and felt the flow-on effect in your own mood and that of everyone else in close proximity?

There are many things that can impact the happiness of your colleagues and employees, perhaps for another conversation, but if they are actively working on improving their mental state it’s not something to be ignored. If someone asks for a mental health day, it’s probably taken them a long time to work up the courage to do so. If they’re ready to try and get on top of it, you should be thrilled. It’s only going to improve your whole workplace dynamic.

There’s something very interesting about the way people treat a mental health day versus the way they treat a regular sick day. Somehow, a mental health day seems to hold more weight, it’s not something that you ask for lightly and therefore something that people rarely abuse. If a worker doesn’t feel like they are able to ask their boss for a mental health day, they’ll either just keep working at a lower capacity or they’ll chuck a sicky and take the day anyway. If that person is really struggling with their mental health they’re probably going to feel pretty guilty about ‘chucking a sicky’ when they are seemingly healthy. Here is where the issue lies. They are not healthy, it’s just not obvious from the outside.

That’s not to say that there won’t still be people who abuse the sick or mental health day - it is, unfortunately, the Australian way. However, you need to trust people for this to work and trust fosters respect, which also only leads to higher happiness levels and loyalty towards a workplace.

You’re losing money to ignorance

Either way you look at it, your business is suffering if your employees’ mental health is suffering. Either they are underperforming at work, believing that they need to just push through whatever mental battle they’re going through (and quite likely decreasing the productivity of those around them too); or, they’re taking more unexplained sick days and things aren’t getting better.

By creating an environment where there is no shame around mental health problems you are giving people the power to address the problem. Aside from mental health days, workplaces need to make sure that in-office mental health supports are in place too. Happier employees who feel well supported in their workplace are more loyal and have higher productivity rates.

In terms of money, there is evidence to show that putting mental health support measures in place actually makes a business more profitable. A study by PwC found that, “for every $1 employers spend on successfully implementing effective actions around mental health in the workplace, they gain an average of $2.30 in benefits. These benefits are through improved productivity, via reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, and fewer compensation claims.”

Working towards the greater good

Ultimately, the way society views mental health still needs a lot of work. Even those of us who view it as highly important can still struggle with the stigma around it. But you know how stigmas get broken? By talking about them and normalising them in our day-to-day.

Once upon a time, most people believed that depression was a weakness, all in your head and not a ‘real’ health issue. Now, we’ve mostly moved on from that belief BUT a lot of people still can’t help feeling that way deep down when the issue presents itself – in themselves or others.

If we’re able to talk about mental health at work, the same way we’d talk about having the flu, the stigma starts to melt away. The more open our workplaces are towards healthy, supportive practices, the easier it is to ask for help or to recognise when you need to take action to get yourself back to full health. Unsurprisingly too, when you work in a place where you feel supported, you’re less likely to get overwhelmed by feelings of stress, anxiety or depression - knowing that you can talk to someone and address it or take a day if you need it to recover. Guilt-free sick days are far more effective at treating mental health issues.

Like all great movements, defeating stigma starts with you, and you, and you. The more widely it’s talked about, the more workplaces are going to take notice. Eventually, the stigma and shame around mental health issues will be a strange idea of past generations.