For Some Employees, ‘Mental Health Days’ Aren’t Vacation Days

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I remember the first time I heard the term, “Mental Health Day”: It was a sitcom episode wherein the main character —  a college professor of economics highly preoccupied with personal responsibility — played hooky to attend the opening day of the MLB season at Wrigley field. His excuse to his colleagues? A mental health day.

You’re probably familiar with the MHD — or at least, how it’s been portrayed culturally in decades past. Maybe you’ve taken a mental health day yourself. Maybe you’ve plead MHD — as many do — in a fudged, joking context, or used it as a juuuust barely passable excuse for a day off from work (no judgment).

What’s a Mental Health Day?

Traditionally, the mental health day falls somewhere between an approved sick day and an I-just-don’t-feel-like-getting-out-of-bed-today day, and professionals have long taken liberties with its use. But for many employees, the mental health day has lost its comedy, and is now seen as one of the more necessary designations of PTO offered. According to Mental Health America, depression ranks among the top three most common workplace problems handled by employee assistance professionals.

In fact, for many professionals, mental health days are as necessary as paid sick leave, vacation days, and maternity leave. But many aren’t getting access to the time off they need.

Many organizations within and outside of Corporate America still separate Vacation Time from Sick Leave, and while the former often accrues and rolls over year after year, unused sick hours often do not. In many instances, unused sick leave is also not paid out when an employee terminates their employment with a company. The “use it or lose it” nature of sick time has already raised eyebrows in the professional world, and American employees have left as many as 169 million days of forfeited time off on the table in recent years.

Thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act, it’s unlawful for an employer to question your mental health (as it pertains to your ability to perform the functions of the job) during an interview, and presumably, during your employment. That’s a good thing, obviously. But there’s also a taboo around discussing mental health, especially at work.

Office-wide fitness challenges are common in the workplace, as are prizes and incentives for physical health competitions, along with subsidized gym memberships and bike-to-work rewards programs. But what about mental wellness? Where’s the gold star for taking care of your Seasonal Affective Disorder? Where’s the trophy for taking time to manage your postpartum depression? Too often, tending to issues of mental health tends to stir a different kind of reaction — often one of judgment and nervous avoidance.

Mental Health Days Aren’t a Luxury

But for many working adults, mental health days are no longer a flimsy excuse for taking advantage of a last-minute flight deal, snagging some extra sleep, crossing errands off a to-do list, or indulging a whim of spontaneity. In fact, for employees in high-stress positions, mental health days can be a saving grace. Today, they’re used for weekly therapy sessions, yoga retreats, and much-needed sabbaticals — a spiritual trend rooted in sound mental health that many corporate cultures are now embracing wholeheartedly.

Unlike vacations or medical procedures, “off days” sometimes cannot be planned out two weeks ahead. Further, the fact that 9-6 jobs and corporate workplaces aren’t just on the hook for making space for mental wellness, but are actually often to blame for awakening or exacerbating issues of mental illness in the first place, suggests that the need for companies to step up and normalize issues of mental health in the workplace is greater than ever.

Unfortunately, there’s a tendency in corporate culture for workers to throw shade at colleagues who request seemingly excessive time off. And while we’re often allotted a certain amount of flexible PTO to ourselves with full-time employment, taking it seems to conjure — at least in some environments — a bit of resentment among employees and management. Although time off is allowed and encouraged, the picture starts to look a bit less sunshine-y when employees actually start to take advantage of breathing room. In cases of time off spent catering to mental health, it seems that any time quickly turns into too much time — and worse, time off that requires defense and definition.

For many professionals managing issues of mental health, there’s nothing scarier than having to explain or detail the need for time off to higher-ups. When it comes time to request time for therapy, doctor visits, or time to process grief or exhaustion, the blank in the HR system for “Reason for Request” can feel like a diagnosis all its own.

How Managers Can Create a Culture of Wellness

Thankfully, there are a few things managers can do to create a culture that’s friendly to employees managing issues of mental health. And while some are sure to make a greater immediate impact than others, all are bound to make a dent in the conversation surrounding the productivity of professionals managing their own mental health.

1. Focus on total wellness. Make sure you have a qualified HR professional in place — or a surrogate solution if you don’t have someone on staff — to handle work-related mental health issues. Additionally, recognize that employee health doesn’t just refer to physical wellness. In addition to work performance, pay attention to how your teammates seem at work. Are they foggy, irritable, or unmotivated? It’s probably a symptom of a larger issue. And while some people greatly prefer to keep the divisions of work and personal life clearly separate, managers should take it upon themselves to (unobtrusively) check in with their direct reports, and open the door for honest conversation surrounding mental health.

2. Foster a sense of work-life balance. If your employer offers a PTO policy (flexible or not) or paid sick leave, be prepared to honor it without explanation. There’s nothing worse than offering an employee breathing room but attaching conditions to it. Doing so is like the proverbial dollar-attached-to-a-string trick: Yes, you can have this, but I’m going to make you dance for it. Instead, take steps to automate your PTO system (if that makes sense), and remove as much human bias as possible. If you run into issues of employees exceeding their allotted time (and you might), bring a third party (a true third party) into the conversation to help mediate and make sure everyone’s bottom line gets met.

3. Lump PTO together. If your employer is prepared to offer employees three weeks of vacation, two weeks of paid sick leave, and one week of personal time, they might as well go ahead and call it like it is: Six weeks of time off, no questions asked. Take it all at once if you like, or spread it out throughout the year. Your time is your time; manage it how you like. How simple is that? If you’re a decision-maker, or have influence on those who are, consider pushing for this change.

4. Recognize that mental health struggles come and go. And that just because an employee is dealing with something now doesn’t mean it’ll be an issue moving forward. Give your reports space to breathe, deal, adapt, and change, and recognize that who they are at work is only a glimpse of who they are overall.

Tell Us What You Think

What’s your opinion on the value of mental health days? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.