Sometimes people joke about calling in sick because they need a personal day to sleep in, take a break and get it together. In fact, employees do this frequently, but they’ll pretend it’s to recover from a sudden cold or flu. As an employer, it might be time to reconsider your policies with this in mind. Make it clear that taking an occasional mental health day is just as important as taking a sick day.
Need more convincing? Think of it this way: The reasoning behind sick days is obvious. Nobody wants a sick co-worker to come in with a bad cold, spreading germs to everyone in the vicinity. Mental health is similar. If an employee feels overburdened and overwhelmed, is that contagious? Not necessarily, but such feelings can have officewide effects. Misery loves company, and an unhappy, stressed employee might start a negative chain reaction across a team or department.
Of course, one day off won’t solve a major problem, and you won’t want to be too loose with this type of policy (nobody would come in on Mondays if they thought they could get away with it). There are ways, however, for a business to encourage employees to take care of themselves without ruining productivity.
Introduce Flex Days
Many companies have time off divided into two baskets: vacation and sick time. Vacation needs to be requested and approved in advance and is used for everything from family obligations to tropical getaways. Sick time, on the other hand, is used when people have illnesses, have a doctor appointment or to care for sick children. The differences between these two are very clear to anyone in the workforce.
But what about flex days as a distinct third option? These are days that can be used for whatever purpose an employee needs or wants. Unlike vacation days, they can be taken at will (although you may certainly encourage scheduling such days in advance), and unlike sick days, you don’t have to have a fever (or fake a cough) to take one. Employees can use these strictly as personal days without fear of being dishonest. They can go shopping or catch up on a favorite TV show. The point is to do whatever they want. They’ll be more productive when they’re back in the office.
Support a Balance of Flexibility and Practicality
As a member of your company’s leadership team, why would you want a system that encourages people to take days off without notice to do something that isn’t critical? Well, personal days might be more critical than you think. Stress has a negative effect on the body, mood and behavior. Most importantly, though, offering employees an avenue to fight back against stress improves morale. If your employees know they can take a breather when things get rough without being punished for it, it makes pushing through a lot easier.
Upper management needs to set the example here so employees know it’s okay to take needed time off. If a boss lets everyone know that she’s taking next Tuesday off for a mental health day, it sets the tone for the whole office. By acknowledging stress and the need to step away from it, you’re imparting the feeling that your company cares about employee well-being. This helps people feel more committed and engaged at work, which obviously benefits everyone involved.
Provide Other Stress Reducers
Flex days don’t work for everyone, and they won’t solve all the stress problems in the office. Another tactic you might try is “mindfulness hours,” which means setting time aside to focus on the inner self. That might sound rather New Age, but mindfulness time can be reflected in simple activities such as going for a walk, doodling on a notepad, deep-breathing exercises or even simply sitting quietly.
How can a company encourage this type of behavior? Let your employees know it’s OK to take a break for a quick recharge, providing a few examples of common activities that others find beneficial. Emphasize that your employees’ well-being is important to you and to the company as a whole. Let people know that you don’t just care about deadlines — you want the people who have to meet those deadlines to be at their best.
Does focusing on mental health really make a difference? Absolutely. Allowing your employees to take the time they need to feel refreshed and ready to work means a workforce of engaged, committed employees. That’s the best any boss can hope for.
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she interviewed and hired employees, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. Her writings have appeared in Inc. Magazine, CBS MoneyWatch, US News, Readers Digest and other publications. She focuses on helping businesses nurture great employees and helping employees enjoy great careers.