Mental health days are on the rise in the corporate world, but they’re not a silver bullet for workplace stress


Nicole Scott has a better understanding than most of the importance of looking after your mental health. As a peer-support worker at a mental health organisation, she spends her days counselling people through their own struggles.

The emotional toll the job can take is why the organisation has a clear policy for mental health leave — employees are encouraged to take it whenever they feel like they need to, no questions asked.

But even with this explicit policy, the 26-year-old from Geelong says she still felt uncomfortable about asking for her first mental health day off work recently. 

“I still felt a little bit nervous about it, because I know it’s not very normalised yet in Australian culture,” she says, “but I just knew that I was not going to be able to be fully present for the people I work with and the clients, so I was like ‘I need to take it off’.”

When she took the day off — and her workplace was fine with it — she described it as a “weight off her shoulders”, but she says she probably wouldn’t have broached the subject had her organisation not encouraged it.

That’s why she says it’s important for employers to normalise conversations about mental health and mental health days a part of the company culture.

“There’s a lot of that self-stigma, like ‘oh, I shouldn’t be feeling this way’, ‘what are other people going to think?’, or ‘is this going to put my job at risk?,” she says. 

“Now I feel a lot more relaxed and I feel like in the future I won’t feel as nervous taking another day off for my mental health.”

A national conversation

A silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the widespread acknowledgement that mental health is something to be taken seriously

One in five Australians report experiencing high levels of psychological distress, according to an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey.

While workers have been taking days off for mental health for decades, often under the guise of something like a stomach bug or sore back, more workplaces like Nicole’s are now formalising the practice.

For example, in June last year, Unilever introduced “doona days” — a Friday off where staff were encouraged to do whatever they needed to rejuvenate — for its Australian employees, citing the stress caused by the pandemic as a reason.

Other companies were ahead of the curve. In 2016, bank HSBC Australia ran a 12-month trial “doona day” trial, allowing employees to take one “wellness day” off a year and found more than 1,400 of 1,800 employees took them up. The practice is now ongoing.

A headshot Dr Grant Blashki, wearing a blue suit and red tie.
Dr Grant Blashki says there’s evidence people are now more comfortable taking mental health days off work.(

Supplied: Bonnie Savage

)

Beyond Blue lead clinical adviser Dr Grant Blashki says there is evidence that more workers are now open to taking mental health days. “What I’m seeing, which I think is a good thing, is a more mature employer-employee relationship, and that’s really important at the moment,” he says.

“There’s been a realisation that the amount of time you’ve got your bum on the seat looking at the screen isn’t a good measure of productivity.”

A mental health day might look like an employee taking a sick day from their existing leave but for mental health reasons, or it might be a company instituting a separate leave category or rostered “doona day” to encourage employees to use it.

For Sydney lawyer Malcolm Gittoes-Caesar, it was being diagnosed with burnout — a condition caused by chronic workplace stress now included in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases — that led him to advocate for the importance of mental health days. 

A man wearing a hooded jumper sits on a log in front of a view of grass, rocks and the ocean.
Sydney lawyer Malcolm Gittoes-Caesar was recently diagnosed with burn-out and forced to take 5.5 months off work. He is now a big advocate for taking mental health days off work. (

Supplied: Malcolm Gittoes-Caesar

)

The 45-year-old has recently returned to his role as a principal at Parramatta law firm Coleman Greig after taking five months off following his diagnosis, which he says was caused by working long hours, workplace stress, and not taking time off. 

He believes taking more frequent mental health days would have stopped his health from hitting a crisis point down the line. 

“If you don’t stop and take a breath, nothing is going to change at all,” he says. Had he not taken a break, he adds: “I probably would have ended up having a heart attack or a stroke.”

Treating the symptom, not the cause

“Why do we feel we’re letting people down more when we take a mental health day than we would if we had a bad back?” asks Professor Tim Bentley, the director of Edith Cowan University’s Centre for Work and Wellbeing. “There’s a logic to overcome there”.

As director of the centre, Professor Bentley is dedicated to researching the best ways to promote work that positively impacts employees wellbeing — and while he says mental health days do play a role in reducing stress, he is careful not to label them a silver bullet.

Instead he describes them as a “sticky plaster over the problem” and a “perk as opposed to a strategy” to address the underlying causes of stress.

Part of the issue with the rise of days off as a mental health policy is that it puts the onus on the worker to manage their own stress levels, he says, as opposed to encouraging senior staff to develop ways of working and support structures that mean employees don’t reach the stage of needing leave in the first place.

“It doesn’t address any sources of the problems, they’ll be there when you get back,” he says, but adds that when implemented as part of a suite of policies there are significant benefits to taking time off. 

For one, it gives employees the sense they are supported by their workplace. A day off can also act as a “release valve” to help avoid more serious burnout down the line. In purely practical terms, it’s also “good business” for employers to ensure they are looking after their workers in order to get the most value out of them in return.

A 2014 report by PwC Australia and Beyond Blue found for every $1 an organisation spends on appropriate mental health actions, they will on average get $2.30 in benefits in return.

When people see their colleagues — and bosses — being upfront about their struggles, mental health days also have the added benefit of reducing the stigma of mental illness.

“I had a day this week, and I actually for the first time said ‘I’m taking a mental health day’,” Professor Bentley says, “usually I would have just said ‘I’m sick’ and not bothered, but I thought I would make a point of telling my boss this week because I had been working so hard, I was exhausted, and I needed a mental health day.”

Going far enough?

While more businesses have recognised the benefits of a mentally healthy workplace, experts have warned the conversation hasn’t reached the health, hospitality, retail, freight and trade workers on the frontline of the pandemic.

Teachers, for example, have reported increased stress since the pandemic, due to the additional pressures of remote learning, often resulting in three to four hours of overtime a day, or the COVID-19 risk when they are required to work on campus.

Many small business owners are also buckling under the pressure of COVID-19 lockdowns, which could see them open one day, closed the next.

Then there are healthcare workers, who throughout the pandemic have been forced to isolate themselves from loved ones and work extended hours as COVID-19 rippled through the community.

“I would totally expect this to be a white-collar phenomenon,” Professor Bentley say. “It needs to be totally broadened.”

Non-white collar workers are under just as much stress as their counterparts, he says, but the different nature of the work has meant policies like mental health days are less accessible. Instead, he speculates, frontline workers are more likely to take extended leave once they have already reached burnout level.

Dr Blashki says it’s important to remember that business owners are also grappling with high levels of anxiety and stress at the moment, and that employees had to be mindful of that when approaching the question of leave.

“In a perfect world, all employers would be totally relaxed and enlightened about mental health issues,” he says, “but they’ve also got very real pressures trying to stay in business at the moment.”



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