The problem with "mental health days"
One concept that has increasingly picked up steam is this notion of taking a “mental health day”. Given the importance of mental health in Auscorp these days, we have heard of firms specifically give employees paid leave in an effort to champion mental health. To us, taking a “mental health day” means taking a day off from work to relieve the stress caused by work and to prevent burnout. It’s the kind of day you take off when you’ve simply been staffed on too many projects with too little staff for far too long. Now in concept, these “mental health days” seem great – an “innovative” and effective way to combat burnout in the workplace… but unfortunately, we have been hearing that this is not nearly the case in a lot of circumstances.
The main problem we see is that “mental health” is unfortunately still taboo. And no, certainly not amongst the ones that need the brek, but rather it seems to be amongst the ones that are giving it. As one Twitter user jokes, “Take a mental health day, but make sure it’s on your time off, and that it doesn’t affect your productivity… and that it is not inconvenient for the team”.
We also have other instances where taking a “mental health day” just leads to more trouble caused. In a Big 4 accounting legal team, one of you told a partner that you were struggling with mental health and wouldn’t be replying after hours. You subsequently got called into a performance management chat about your situation, despite being a top performer for a number of years prior. The sad thing here is that sometimes, you just want a break to do some chores, to read a book and disconnect. No one asked for anyone to kick up a huge fuss about why you might have chosen to take a break and it is precisely with situations like these that make it hard for someone to take a day off for burnout reasons. This isn’t a one-off scenario, as you also told us of a time where one of you got called into a performance management session literally 24 hours after applying for a “mental health day”.
Now we aren’t saying there is no room for follow-ups by employers for staff that take “mental health days”. After all, firms have an obligation to ensure the wellness of its employees (lol). For example, if someone did hurt themselves due to mental health issues after flagging this to their employer, we would think that some sort of responsibility would lie with the firm. The point here is that these issues are sensitive and that any follow-up should be proportionate and tactful. There doesn’t need to be a song and dance made about the fact that a hard-working employee has taken a day off to recover, and by no means should said person be made to feel guilty about doing so.
On that note, We do want to commend those firms that do give wellness days to its staff. For example, a FAANG in Australia has given a bunch of these to its employees once a month after the horrible bout of COVID lockdowns we have had (no questions asked). Sometimes, it really doesn’t hurt to give your staff a day off here and there.
“Mental health days” should be here to stay, especially given the increasing inability for us to disconnect from work in a highly virtually connected world. As one of you stated, it just takes one person to “show that the world won’t end if someone takes a mental health day” to get rid of the stigma attached to what is effectively a break being taken to prevent burnout. In the meantime though, as the world is still accepting this “innovation” in paid leave, it may just be better to take generic sick leave to avoid the song and dance that inevitably comes with a “mental health day”.