The Mental Health Day: Why It’s Not Just a Fad

As workplaces evolve to meet employees’ growing needs, they’re rethinking paid time off policies so that workers can feel better both inside and out. Increasingly, that includes introducing a personal and mental health day model.

Here’s why: In theory, sick days should be set aside for those “there’s no way I can drag myself to work” days, no matter the reason. But all too often they’re reserved just for physical illness — not for mental health. And even if your policy doesn’t restrict an employee from taking time off for mental health reasons, they may hesitate to do so because of the stigma attached. Mental health days, when backed by a positive work environment, offer employees an appealing alternative.

The Business Case for Mental Health

Recently, Disney made national headlines when Broadway’s “Frozen” actress Patti Murin took to Instagram to discuss the company’s support of her need for time off in the face of crippling anxiety. Before that, a testament to one CEO’s commitment to mental health garnered more than 16,000 retweets on Twitter.

Other employers are stepping up to join them, and not just because it’s the right thing to do. Extending time off policies to include mental health makes good business sense when you consider that 1 in 5 millennials — the largest share of the workforce — reports feeling depressed. On top of that, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) links depression to an average of about five days of missed work per year and up to $44 billion in lost productivity.

Personal vs. Sick Days

Employers both big and small can proactively manage those cost risks. One minor change that can have a major effect is to replace sick days or add new classifications for alternative reasons to miss work. For instance, some argue that offering mental health days alongside sick days brings more exposure to mental health in the workplace and normalizes it in everyday workplace vernacular.

Other workplaces opt to replace sick days entirely with personal days, a catchall label that gives employees the freedom to take time off when they need it, whether they have the flu, work-related stress or simply need to run personal errands for a day. According to a 2018 benefits survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, 36 percent of employers offered personal days last year, a jump from 22 percent just four years prior.

Change the Culture First (and Then the Policy)

However you approach the subject, it’s important to support employees’ need to take off time for their mental health. Promote a welcoming, open-door culture that encourages them to share their needs. Not everyone will want to ask for a specifically labeled mental health day, and they shouldn’t be forced to. But motivating employees to see mental health issues as a health concern that warrants time off — whether in the form of sick days, mental health days or personal days — can make it clear that you understand the complexity and importance of mental health.

Beyond designating personal or mental health days, the CDC recommends other techniques to accommodate mental health in the workplace:

  • Establish employee assistance programs to give workers access to resources and programs for mental health support.
  • Train senior leaders and managers on mental health sensitivity.
  • Structure health insurance plans and benefits packages to include resources meant to accommodate mental health support, such as telemedicine services.

While offering those options is one piece of the puzzle, getting employees to understand them — and actively use them — is another. These changes may require a top-down cultural shift, and company leaders need to be ready to talk about mental health before they can expect the rest of the organization to do so, too. Of course, printed and digital communications have their place, but actively setting an example for others speaks volumes.

In order to help workers recharge and manage their mental health, grant them the time they need in whatever capacity they need it. A well-thought-out paid time off strategy can help your employees navigate through the tough times so that when they do return, they’re ready to jump back into work in the best frame of mind possible.

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