Many of us have done it – told our boss we are ill and taken sick leave when we just didn’t want to go to work that day.
While traditionally this might have been thought of as laziness, a deepening focus on mental health in the workforce has leant validity to the idea of mental health days – specifically designated leave to combat mental fatigue and burnout.
Lifeline WA Chief Executive Lorna MacGregor said a mental health day was an opportunity to take time away from everyday stresses and obligations to refresh and refocus.
“We all suffer a bit of 'Mondayitis' and we all know that will pass, however, if you’re feeling it a bit more than normal then it might be time to rest and recalibrate, and a mental health day could be a good investment,” she said.
ECU Centre for Work + Wellbeing Director Professor Tim Bentley said mental health and psychological injury were increasingly acknowledged alongside physical ill-health as issues organisations needed to manage effectively.
“Mental health days have always been taken by staff, but other reasons have tended to be given for this absence.”
“Providing mental health days helps break the stigma and indicates that the organisation recognises the importance of maintaining good mental health and cares for employee wellbeing.”
However, cautioning that mental health days did nothing to address the root causes of poor mental health, only relieving the symptoms of the problem, Professor Bentley said businesses should always be examining their workplace environment to ensure it was not contributing to mental ill health.
“A healthy psychosocial climate, good leadership and well-designed jobs are essential to creating positive mental health in the workplace,” he said, adding that the benefits of making proper provisions for mental health went both ways.
“Return on investment includes a reduced risk of long-term absence from work due to burnout, improved performance and morale and improved retention,” he said.
“Encouraging employees to take mental health days when needed can also reduce the level of presenteeism (working when sick) and signals to staff that the organisation cares for their wellbeing, which has positive cultural influences.”
Ms MacGregor said research by the Federal Government estimated stress-related absenteeism in Australia cost more than $10 billion a year, while presenteeism cost up to $7 billion per year.
“The benefit for the company is that mental health days allow staff to catch and address the signs of burnout before the symptoms become really entrenched and counterproductive to the workplace,” she said.
“Staff members who are suffering burnout often become cynical about their work and workplace, irritable with colleagues and have a bit of a tendency to anger, so by allowing a staff member to catch those symptoms early it’s an investment in the well-being of your organisation.”
Implementing mental health days
For employers looking to implement mental health days for their staff, there are different models they can follow.
“For some employers there are no requirements for anything other than the person to say ‘I’m taking my mental health day’,” Blooming Minds director Tasha Broomhall said. “For others there is more of a process.
“If you are providing the days in addition to regular leave entitlements, you would need to consider what the parameters are and communicate these clearly and then apply them fairly across the workforce.”
While mental health days can be an important part of an organisation’s overall wellbeing program, Ms Broomhall said they should not be used as a band-aid solution for deeper problems.
“Employers and employees need to be cautious that such days are not used reactively when someone is overwhelmed or at risk of burning out, without also looking at what led to that situation,” she said.
“Look for patterns in terms of when and how people are using them. If they are being used to help people cope with being overwhelmed, determine what’s leading to that and help people not get to that point.
“If someone has been working under excessive demands, bullying or other workplace pressures and psychosocial risks, a mental health day alone will be unlikely to fix these issues, the broader issues also need to be identified and addressed.”
What to do on your mental health day
Ms MacGregor said when taking a mental health day people should try to be mindful and deliberate to get the most out of it.
“If I take a mental health day I will go for a run outdoors, I’ll enjoy a long meditation and I’ll cook my family a really healthy tasty meal because all those things are good self-care and really help me to recalibrate and regain a sense of purpose and joy in my life,” she said.
“A mental health day is not a cure-all, it is just one part in looking after your self-care. If you do have symptoms of mental ill health, then you should talk to your doctor.”