What Actually is a Mental Health Day?
According to a report entitled State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia, one in five Australian employees report that they have taken time off work due to feeling mentally unwell. But even though poor mental health awareness in the workplace is costing Australian businesses around $11 billion a year in lost work hours, there is a growing school of thought that there are tangible benefits to allocating a specific number of mental health days to workers.
Whether this is seen as an added incentive to workers by employers identifying a need to be seen as an attractive proposition to employees, or recognising that the need for change around workplace mental health has been long overdue, the mental health day is here to stay.
It is not really an argument to ask whether employees abuse the situation – they do – Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the average public sector worker takes about eight to nine days of sick leave annually, for both legitimate and non-legitimate reasons. Workers have been caught posting photos on social media when they are supposed to be at work or taking long weekends. The real crux of the matter is how useful mental health days are for those amongst us who are genuinely having to deal with extreme anxiety or depression that requires time off from work – and whether that time off is of actual benefit.
Are we Using Mental Health Days as Much as We Should?
Being able to take a mental health day and actually doing it are two different things though. Despite mental health becoming more openly discussed, many people feel they cannot discuss mental health days with managers or colleagues. This usually comes down to workplace culture and shame in the community.
The reality is that employees across industries, demographics, and seniority levels have always been taking mental health days—they have simply remained hidden under the guise of ‘feeling sick,’ ‘family emergencies,’ and other reasons. In fact, according to a recent Forbes article, 95% of employees who have taken time off due to stress named another reason, such as an upset stomach or headache. What is more, less than 30% of employees feel comfortable talking to their managers about their mental health, and even less (25%) to HR.
Is One or Two Days Away from Work A Cure-All for Mental Health Issues?
Of course not, and some employers use this argument against having them, but often they can be enough of a pressure-valve release to both recharge and reflect upon the root courses of anxiety, and whether the causes are work-based or deeper. But some employees are realising that a day off here and there is a temporary alleviation from larger issues. Many factors can have an impact on mental health, and the workplace is undoubtedly one of them. A recent Galaxy Research poll, conducted in partnership with Medibank, indicated that only 29 per cent of Australian workers surveyed have access to any type of mental health program in their workplace. Where these are provided, they typically focus on mental health and resilience coaching or classes pertaining to stress, anxiety or sleep.
What are Your Rights?
Employers often wrestle with the allocation of such time off as to be properly designated as a ‘mental health day’. Some will expect employees to take it as part of their annual paid leave, but these days are usually required to be flagged up in advance, and signed off, by which time the need for the day off may well have passed.
However, according to the National Employment Standards, full-time employees are entitled to 10 sick days each year (sometimes called personal | carer’s leave). This is not just for the days when you are physically ill and cannot possibly leave the house. Safe Work Australia says work-related mental health conditions are also known as ‘psychological injuries, and they are a major concern in Australian workplaces. The numbers are concerning. About 60 per cent of mental disorder claims are awarded to workers aged 40 and over. Meantime, workers with severe depression take 20 times more sick days per month.
If you are already working in a company that offer mental health days, or will actively seek employers that do, you may wish to consider talking with your superiors regularly about how you are tracking. If you feel comfortable, you could also talk with workmates you are close with. And if one or two mental health days are not making a difference, it is important to come up with a long-term plan with work and/or healthcare professional.