By Alanna Hilbink
A lot of people work while balancing, or learning to balance, their mental health. Nearly two-thirds of Americans are part of the labor force.1 Nearly one-fourth of Americans experience symptoms of at least one mental illness each year. Even people who don’t have diagnosable mental health issues still face a lot of job-related mental health concerns — 83 percent of employees experience stress in the workplace.2
While we know these facts, we often don’t know what to do about them in practice. What’s the answer to improved mental health in the workplace? Better healthcare? Programs in the office? Days off for mental health? Maybe it’s all of these. Maybe it just needs to start with something.
Harvard Health Publishing shares, “The stigma attached to having a psychiatric disorder is such that employees may be reluctant to seek treatment — especially in the current economic climate — out of fear that they might jeopardize their jobs. At the same time, managers may want to help but aren’t sure how to do so. And clinicians may find themselves in unfamiliar territory, simultaneously trying to treat a patient while providing advice about dealing with the illness at work.”3 Rather than struggle on in isolation or confusion, it’s time to start talking to each other and having conversations about potential solutions.
Why Do We Need to Address Mental Health in the Workplace?
Our work lives and private lives can never be completely separate, and they shouldn’t be. Mental Health America shares, “A quarter to a third of our lives will be spent in the workplace. On a daily basis, we will spend more waking hours in our workplace than at home, and experience more exchanges with team members than family members.”4
So, what happens at work and how we feel at work matters. Whether we realize it or not, long hours spent at work affect our health, lives and thoughts. In turn, how we think and act, and what we say and do, impacts how we work. So, whether we’re dealing with the stressors everyone faces in life or our own unique mental health symptoms, we have to learn how to manage those in a setting that isn’t always the most understanding, flexible or accommodating. We have to find ways to change workplace mentalities and mental health policies for the better.
Mental Health Days as an Option for Improving Workplace Wellness
One option for improving mental health in the workplace is offering mental health days. Like sick days, these involve allotted time off that is often paid and often protected in terms of privacy. Mental health days give people time off to rest, heal and come back to work refreshed. And while anyone can use a regular sick day as a mental health day, using the correct name gives people permission to take some time to care for themselves without evasion or guilt. Mental health already hides behind enough stigma, lies and avoidance as it is. How we label and talk about issues — if we talk about them at all — impact how we feel and what we do.
Are Mental Health Days the Answer?
The concept of mental health days isn’t universally accepted — employers don’t want empty desks and offices, and employees still have to be able to do their jobs and get their work done. U.S. News explains that taking a day off can’t become the default response to stress. It isn’t a replacement for getting a professional diagnosis, talking with a therapist and learning additional strategies for managing mental health. But a mental health day can be a great way to take a break when you are overwhelmed, tired or need time to find that professional support.5
What If I Need More Time for Mental Health?
If you need to take a longer break for mental health, you can ask your employer for a leave of absence. You may only need to provide minimal details, or you may need your doctor or psychiatrist to provide documentation. This will depend on the amount of time you need and your company’s policies. If you have been diagnosed with major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or another mental health disease, you have some protection against discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This makes it even more important to talk with a professional, learn more about your mental health and start taking the right steps so you can find your work/life balance.
Advocating for Your Mental Health in the Workplace
It’s always up to an individual — with the help, advice and support of professionals—to determine what’s best for his or her own unique mental health needs. If this involves using a sick day or two for mental health, use them. If it involves needing more time off or certain at-work accommodations, speak up. Don’t be afraid to talk to your employer about what you need.
You can start changing your workplace environment or culture. You can make it more accommodating and understanding for everyone. When you speak up about your healthcare needs, you raise awareness; you start a conversation. By advocating for yourself, you make it easier for others to do the same. As everyone comes together with greater understanding, there’s real opportunity for creating positive change at work, whether this takes the form of mental health days or not.
1 Goetzel, Ron, et al. “Mental Health in the Workplace: A Call to Action Proceedings From the Mental Health in the Workplace—Public Health Summit.” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Apr. 2018. Accessed 31 Jul. 2018.
2 “Taking a ‘Mental Health Day’: Your Rights in the Workplace.” Fox News. 20 May 2015. Accessed 31 Jul. 2018.
3 “Mental Health Problems in the Workplace.” Harvard Health Publishing. Feb. 2010. Accessed 2 Aug. 2018.
4 “Workplace Mental Health.” Mental Health America. Accessed 2 Aug. 2018.
5 Levine, David. “When Is a Mental Health Day Off From Work Justified?” U.S. News. 18 May 2018. Accessed 2 Aug. 2018.