Managing people at work is a tricky business - it's a game of give and take. Leaders and managers have responsibilities and obligations towards their employees, and vice-versa. Employers owe their workers a duty of care so that everyone can go home just as healthy as when they left it, and workers owe it to their employers to look after their own health and that of their colleagues. But not all illness and injury are visible to the naked eye.
Looking after mental health goes well beyond legal obligations. An estimated 12 billion working days are lost globally every year to depression and anxiety. That amounts to an annual productivity loss worth $1 trillion.
Its importance is hard to overstate, especially in the current world of remote and hybrid work where workers can easily feel isolated. A mental health day is a day off work spent doing whatever is needed to relieve stress. It's a relatively straightforward definition, yet this type of leave is still vastly misunderstood. Allow us to clarify.
What's the problem?
Let's start at the beginning. The Adecco Group's recent Global Workforce of the Future Report 2022 reveals the extent of the mental health problem. A worrying 36% of workers have suffered from burnout in the past 12 months. This is distressing in and of itself, but even more so when a quarter of workers who leave their job due to burnout take career breaks. That's a lot of people potentially leaving their job for extended periods of time at a time when there is a dire need for talent.
It could be argued that companies that take care of their people have an advantage in the fight for top talent - both in terms of retaining and attracting it. But they're not doing nearly enough, it would seem. Over half of all workers (55%) surveyed for the Global Workforce of the Future report do not think highly of how their employer is addressing mental health issues. That number is even higher among non-managers and non-desk workers.
But it's not all down to the employer. The report also shows that only 18% of workers take a sick day when feeling mentally unwell or burned out. Clearly something is amiss. It is in the best interest of both workers and their employers to look after mental health, and yet 24% of workers have seen their mental health worsen over the past year.
So what is a mental health day and how does it help?
The first key thing to understand about mental health days is that they are a preventative measure.
Sick days are taken as a reactive measure to illness and holidays are made with plans in mind. Mental health days should be taken to regroup before reactive measures are needed. The trouble is that this is rarely understood and so sick leave and mental health leave often end up being the same thing. In the UK, mental health accounts for 12.7% of all sickness absence - and that's only the ones who gave an honest reason for their time off. A recent poll showed that over half of UK workers pretended to be suffering from a physical ailment to hide their mental illness. This makes it virtually impossible to make mental healthy days preventative. Eliminating the stigma and secrecy surrounding mental health in the workplace would go a long way in resolving this.
The second key nuance to emphasise is that mental health days are a helpful tool, but mental wellbeing should be a priority every day.
When done well, a mental health day can help reset perspective, give time to process emotions properly, rest and destress. What to do during a mental health day will depend on the person. Some will want to do very little, others may want to catch up with people to talk things through, and others might want to do something completely different and exciting. But reducing stress and resetting the mind shouldn't be an occasion, it should be a daily occurrence.