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Should We Really Treat Mental Health Days Like Regular Sick Days?

Jen Slack's picture
Mental health

A story that broke this week has me asking questions about mental health stress leave in the work place and whether or not we should really treat these like regular sick days.


It all started when Madalyn Parker, 26, software developer, from Ann Arbor Michigan, decided to take a few days off to deal with her mental health. So, she sent out this email.

"Hey team, I'm taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I'll be back next week refreshed and back 100 percent".

Parker, who suffers from anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder, received positive emails from her workers as well as this email from her CEO, Ben Congleton. "I can't believe this is not a standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work".

Parker then posted the exchange online and was overwhelmed with the positive responses.

People were complimenting her for her honesty and the fact that she was being a positive force in helping to remove of the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Some commented on the fact that they had to lie in order to take a mental health day and that if they were honest, they would be fired.

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After the story made headlines around the United States, her boss was quoted as saying, "Mental health is just as important as physical health in these situations."

I agree. Mental health is crucial.

However, first off, I think it would be wise to factor in the differences of being physically versus mentally sick, as well as the remedies.

One reason that being physically sick is not generally stigmatized, is that just about everyone gets physically sick, or has been sick at one point or another in their lives. On the flip side, there are some people who go through life never experiencing serious mental health issues.

Another, is that sometimes a physical illness can be contagious. So, attending the workplace with a flu or a cold, for example, is often a bad idea, as the sickness may spread to other individuals and productivity would be decreased in a much bigger way, than if a single individual was off work.

Another way they differ is that most often, we know that time off should heal many physical ailments. In the case of an operation, a broken limb or something of that nature, we do know that a period of rest is necessary for the individual to recover.

However, this may not be the case with the person with mental health problems.

While I believe sleep and rest are very important to someone with mental health issues, one of the problems with many mental issues, is that they simply cannot sleep. What's to say that if they take the time of work, they will be able to get the rest they need, if their issues stem from their minds not being able to find rest?

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In fact, I do wonder if lack of sleep may be the cause of the mental problems, rather than a symptom. Check out this article on that very subject with a link to an interesting study.

My point is basically confirmed by Parker, when she says "I had experienced several nights of insomnia and was poorly rested and also having a lot of suicidal thoughts, which make it difficult to accomplish much at work," she said.

Due to the fact that she had been experiencing suicidal thoughts, I sincerely hope that she is okay. I also hope that she was able to get the rest that she so desperately needed.

Mental health is important. It's crucial.

However, with the push to allow more people to be off work for mental health issues, what happens to those employees who are not at huge companies with CEO's and decent salaries with paid sick days?

What about the delivery driver at a "mom and pop" small business who is paid hourly? If he started taking off work due to mental health issues, would he not then, start suffering financially, if they were paid hourly? Depending on how often he took sick days, of course, but wouldn't the smaller paycheck become a stressor? And of course, stress causes insomnia, so it could be a vicious circle, so to speak.

You see the conundrum?

The effects of the missing employee for the small business owner himself, are also more obvious when an employee takes sick days - whether for physical or mental health.

In a large company with thousands of employees, it's easy for the CEO to say, "Sure take a few days".

However, at the small business, the loss of production is much more obvious. With an employee gone, the boss might have to stop the usual production to go out and do deliveries. They might then, miss phone calls from potential customers who have since dialed the next place. You see where I'm going. Whether the sick day is due to physical or mental issues, the effect on the small business owner is felt each day he is off.

I know personally, I have had some very unpleasant experiences in my life that have affected my mental health. I was lacking sleep, devastated, depressed and anxious and I simply did not want to go to work.

However, being a single mom, I had no choice but to go to work. However, what I found was at the end of the day, is that my situation didn't seem quite as bad as it did at the start of it. I had gotten through 8 hours and I was okay. Because I was forced to think about work, talk to coworkers and perform the required tasks, I simply didn't have time to focus on my problems. They didn't go away because I went to work, but they also didn't consume me anymore. Work provided me with the 'break' I needed.

I do think that, had the option of a paid mental health day, without stigma, been open to me at that time, I would have taken it. When I look back, however, perhaps it better that I had not.

In conclusion, while mental health issues are a very real concern, I don't necessarily think it's wise to make a blanket statement stating that everyone should simply take a sick day when they feel they need it. I don't thinks its as simple as that.

What are your thoughts?