Mental Health Days - Are they effective?
Defining what constitutes a Mental Health Day
A day that an employee takes off work in order to relieve stress or renew vitality Merriam Webster
The term Mental Health Day has been around for years, but with the increased focus on mental health it's become more widely recognised, especially in the wake of the pandemic with the increased focus on workplace wellbeing.
We've heard of some employers announcing they're giving Mental Health Days to their employees to recognise the impact of working through extremely challenging times on their mental health. Plus, we've heard from some companies announcing they are including Mental Health Days in their HR policies, specifying the number of days (usually 2/3) that employees are allowed, building them into annual leave or offering this as an optional extra benefit.
However, is this really the point of a Mental Health Day? Should it be the employer who decides whether they give or allow a specific number of Mental Health Days for each employee?
For me the above approaches, whilst well intended are missing the point of what a Mental Health Day means to someone who is experiencing mental ill health. They don't really want to take the time off work and they have no idea how many days they may need, they are just in a state of mental distress and have no idea how they can function to get through the day.
The fact is, whenever an employee calls in sick due to stress, anxiety, depression or any other type of mental ill health, what they're really asking for is a Mental Health Day. In fact, due to the physiological effect of mental distress, employees may well call in sick with physical symptoms such as a headache, an upset tummy, irritable bowel syndrome flare up and many other physical symptoms, but the root cause may be their mental ill health. As someone living in a sustained level of mental distress will have supressed it so much that their body is now sending signals that all is not well, so many of these types of absences could also be Mental Health Days.
"Prioritise your health before your health becomes the priority"
Those who suffer with mental ill health often describe it as an invisible illness, because they try to 'put a brave face on' so as not to draw attention to how bad they really feel inside. In relation to their work they may feel fearful, depending on their manager and the workplace culture, about sharing how much they are struggling with their mental health. As many employees feel such a disclosure would have a detrimental effect on how they are seen by colleagues and their capability in their role will be questioned, which may mean losing their job.
When someone struggles with mental ill health, they will have days when they feel ok and are able to laugh and joke around with colleagues, but then other days their internal dialogue will take them to a place where they feel worthless and can't summon the motivation to get out of bed to perform daily tasks. So, the thought of coming into work and performing their role responsibilities, which may also be a contributing factor, will feel overwhelming as they don't even feel fully functional as a human being.
Are Mental Health Days effective?
From my experience, not unless they are part of a clear wellbeing strategy.
This is due to the fact that whilst a Mental Health Day can provide much needed relief to an individual in the moment, unless the individual is taking action on the root causes of their mental ill health, the time off is not preventative. The relief is momentary, as all the individual is really doing is using the day to release the pressure from the build up of mental distress, until the next time the mental pressure gets too overwhelming.
Mental wellbeing is individual as no two human beings and their personal situations are alike, so until employers have a clear strategy in place, the giving or allowing of a few Mental Health Days will not address the root cause of their employees wellbeing needs, they are just a tick box approach to wellbeing.
However, through developing a wellbeing strategy that meets the needs of employees, an employer will be taking a preventative approach that cultivates a psychologically safe workplace. This in turn will support employees to maintain mental wellness at work through improved ways of working, weaving wellbeing in to policies and processes and providing training that will increase awareness of how to notice if someone is moving into the 'Reacting' and 'Injured' phase of the mental health continuum (see diagram below), and how to best support them.
Developing a wellbeing strategy for your organisation
In my experiences as a HR professional, I have seen first hand the workplace factors that impact on employee wellbeing, and through the work I implemented towards achieving the Workplace Wellbeing Charter and Investors in People I know the framework required that cultivates a culture of wellbeing. A culture where employees feel valued and supported to thrive in their roles. It really does lay the foundation for business success.
If you are considering how to approach a wellbeing strategy for you business, I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further with you in an initial consultation call
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