Should mental health days be included in personal leave?

Oct 24, 2017

We’ve all heard the expression ‘taking a mental health day’. While some may question whether it’s a legitimate reason for time off, allowing workers to refresh and regroup is gaining traction as a workplace management strategy.

It’s widely recognised that work is generally good for our health and wellbeing. However, when factors such as workplace stresses, inadequate resources, lack of support and changes in the workplace are ongoing and excessive, this may result in employees feeling overwhelmed at work and wanting to take time off to recuperate.

According to our State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report, one in five Australian employees report that they have taken time off work due to feeling mentally unwell.

Poor mental health costs Australian workplaces an estimated $10.9 billion per year due to absenteeism, loss of productivity and compensation claims.

A recent article in the respected business magazine Forbes explores the benefits and potential challenges that allocating dedicated ‘mental health days’ each year would offer workers.

There's a growing call for organisations to offer ‘mental health days’ as an added benefit to employees. One group calling for the introduction of dedicated recharge time for employees is Forbes’ Coaches Council, which argues that allowing time for employees to recharge will lead to an increase in productivity.

Coaches Council member Tonyalynne Wildhaber from US business and life coaching organisation The Courage Practice says having the option to take an occasional mental health day is vital for employees’ wellbeing.

“Mental health days are just as important as sick days, vacation, or any other form of paid time off.”

“If it is important for employees to regularly contribute high-impact, high-quality work, it is equally essential they have flexible, paid time to contribute to their whole health and wellness.”

Kelly Meerbott, leadership coach and speaker, shares a similar view but challenges the idea of setting aside designated ‘mental health leave’, instead arguing employees should be allowed to use their allocated time off for any type of self-care.

“Workers should be allowed to flex and flow according to the iterations of their minds and bodies.”

“There must be structure within this, of course, and time off doesn't need to be labelled ‘mental’ or ‘sick’ or ‘PTO’ [paid time off], it just needs to be time to accomplish the personal care (self / family / other) we all need.”

Council member Kevin Leonard says allocating specific mental health leave can sometimes backfire on employees and it should be up to them whether to disclose how they’re using their time off.

“Categorising paid time off may be the single largest contributor in the erosion of employer and employee trust,” says Kevin.

“How many days is up to the employer. How to use them is up to the employee.”

It makes sense for employees to be allowed to take time off when they need to refresh and renew as part of their agreed personal leave allocation. As the conversation around health and wellbeing at work develops it’s doubtful whether the categorisation of ‘mental health days’ within an allocation of personal leave is important or even helpful.

While a day off can be a great way to get back on track, usually it won’t address the reason behind the need for a break – such as too much work, not enough flexibility, poor job design or lack of role clarity.

In these cases it is useful to acknowledge and address the underlying issues to ensure there is a positive and lasting impact on employees and the business.

Our Healthy Workplaces page is a great starting point in getting to grips with how you can help make your workplace more mentally healthy.

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