Could 'a mental health day' improve workplace well-being?

Published Oct. 5, 2021, 7:54 a.m. by Sini-Maria Melanen

Admitting to work-related stress or mental health struggles can feel daunting. Open discussion helps destigmatise the subject, but should employers establish official practices to address mental health issues?

Have you ever told your boss that you need time off because of work-related mental health issues? Would you even feel comfortable raising the subject? Although nowadays there is less of a stigma surrounding diagnoses for depression and burnout, many workplaces still seem to prioritise work over well-being.

While taking time off to recover from surgery or the common flu is normal practice, asking for sick leave because you’re feeling depressed is another story. A recent study conducted by Aetna International including office-based workers across the UK, Singapore, United Arab Emirates and the U.S. revealed that 51.7 per cent of employees diagnosed with mental health issues had lied about their reasons for taking a sick day. The data also showed that employees were more likely to take a sick day due to physical health issues than mental health issues.

Openly admitting that you struggle with social anxiety or have experienced burnout is still very much a taboo. Attitudes to such issues can vary significantly depending on work culture and management styles. But the fact is that reported mental health problems are broadly on the rise partially due to the pandemic. And the effects on employee productivity and the costs of treating these illnesses are significant.

In Finland, the public health care system and the statements made by public figures who suffer from mental health issues have helped to normalise the idea that mental wellbeing is a human right and as important as physical health. But the concept of taking a ‘mental health day’ might still be a new one for many of us.

A mental health day is an employer-paid day for employees to take time off from work to recover from or prevent mental health-related issues. But could work-sponsored mental health days be the answer to better workplace wellbeing?

Big brands lead the way

The connection between profitability and workplace wellbeing has been established – it is more profitable to take preventive action and treat mental health issues early on than to let employees carry the burden alone.

Two surveys published in 2021 by McKinsey’s Center of Societal Benefit through Healthcare identified several points of disconnect between employer and employee perspectives on workplace mental health. While employers felt it’s important to give support for mental wellbeing and access to mental illness treatments, their ideals didn’t match reality. Only 27 per cent of frontline employees felt that they were given sufficient support for their mental health struggles.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, public discourse on the subject of mental health and work-life balance has taken off, not only on social platforms and other media outlets, but corporations are also taking a stand. Nike announced in August that it will close its corporate offices to give workers a week to relax and focus on their mental health, while other large global firms such as Google and SAP have already incorporated work-sponsored mental health days into their practices.

Companies that allow staff to have a mental health break signal that they take the issue seriously and that there is no expectation for employees perform professionally at the expense of their sanity. In the case of people who have difficulties drawing boundaries and saying ‘no’ when asked to take on another project, employers should also provide the appropriate channels for them to express themselves and turn down extra work.

Cultivating an inclusive culture, measuring the mental health of employees, taking preemptive action and reacting to problems accordingly should be a standard practice for any employee-friendly workplace. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Fostering open communication about mental health issues is essential – whether you’re an employee or employer. And as a leader, it’s important to demonstrate that asking for support when it’s needed is not a sign of weakness but of self-awareness and to establish processes that will help keep your workforce healthy.