October 10 is World Mental Health Day – a day to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilise efforts in support of mental health. It’s got us thinking about the other type of mental health day and just how important it is to take one.
Physical or mental, your health is your health. It’s essential to take care of both and not let anyone, including your employer, tell you otherwise.
As well as an increased risk of not performing your work safely, not being able to take the time you need to address or manage your mental health can lead to fatigue, increased likelihood of heart disease and respiratory issues, and a higher chance of death before 45.
So, let’s talk about taking a mental health day. You’d be surprised by the difference it can make.
You may feel like the only one struggling, but you’re not alone
A recent report found that in June 2021, one in five Australians had high psychological distress. Among young people, it was as high as one in three. Take a look around – those numbers may not be surprising.
The truth is, many of us are finding things especially tough at the moment. Dr Grant Blahski, the research lead at Beyond Blue, puts it pretty plainly when he says that Australian workers are facing a ‘triple whammy’ of personal, work and relationship stress that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Unfortunately, in Australia, there’s still a stigma around taking a mental health day. It can feel like taking time off for mental health issues will be taken less seriously than for physical reasons. The good news is that the culture is slowly but surely changing, starting with young workers. A recent report from the ABS found that Gen Z workers (those under 24) are the most likely to take a day off to support their mental health. Even so, the stigma around mental health can sometimes be so ingrained that it’s hard to recognise the signs in ourselves.
Here are some signals that might mean you need at least a day off work:
- You’re not sleeping properly
- You can’t stop thinking about work
- You’re working consistently outside of hours
- You’re feeling less sharp
Why you should still take a mental health day while WFH
When it comes to looking after our mental health, working from home has made things harder in many ways. Some people dread returning to the office, while others struggle without it. Both situations have pros and cons, but it can be much harder to disconnect when you’re working from home. And it can be that much harder to recognise signs that you’re struggling.
Working in an office can help you protect yourself mentally by creating distance and perspective. For example, commuting to the office every day may have been your chance to switch on and prepare yourself, while your commute home (and shedding those uncomfortable work clothes once you’re there) may have helped you switch off and unwind.
Working from home means we lose the normal moments that help us transition between modes, and it becomes harder to build boundaries. So no matter what your boss, HR department or those LinkedIn influencers tell you, sometimes you just need to stop, take time off and reset. Even if it’s just for a day.
Forget the economic reasons, do it for the right reasons
Let’s take a second to address an important point often raised when we talk about a mentally resilient and healthy workforce.
You’ll hear many people framing mental health in the workplace as an economic issue – after all, an unhappy worker is a less productive worker. For example, the Centre for Disease Control found that people with depression suffer 46 days of reduced productivity when not receiving support. But that’s missing the point entirely.
This is not a case of increasing the economic output of an already overstretched workforce or creating more productive workers for corporations. It’s not about putting a ping pong table in the kitchen or having a pizza party once a quarter to say thank you for working 60-hour weeks. And it’s not about the annual RUOK Day email from the HR director, who has done very little about the root causes of poor mental health in the workplace for the other 364 days.
It’s about providing workers with a safe, dignified environment in which to work. Framing it as an economic debate only serves to transfer the responsibility back to the individual worker, trivialising and commodifying their mental health by treating it like a barrier to profit.
You have a right to look after your mental health, and your employer has a legal obligation to reduce all risks to health – physical and mental.
So, what are your rights?
Your employer has a legal obligation under the Work Health and Safety Laws to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to mental health. They also have an obligation to consult with you through your union on matters that affect your mental health and safety.
You are entitled to a certain number of sick days, or personal days, per year – it’s up to you to take them when you need them.
If your employer requests a medical certificate, most GPs will be happy to provide you with one. You may wish your employer to know you’re taking a mental health day, but if not, your GP can be as vague as noting a ‘medical condition.’ It’s up to you whether you want your GP to disclose the reasons for your absence, and how you have the conversation with your employer is up to you.
How to have the conversation (or not)
So now we know where we stand regarding your rights to take time off work for any health reason – be they mental or physical – it’s worth discussing how we start to advocate for ourselves and others in the workplace by normalising conversations around mental health.
Some of us will be more willing and able to have those conversations with our managers and bosses. For others, it’s not something they’re ready for yet. If you’re confident having the conversation and being open about the stress and strain of your work, then you should ask your employer for a mental health day.
Sometimes, it takes courage, and not all employers react well to the request. If your mental health directly impacts your ability to do your job safely, then you should tell your boss. Otherwise, the reality is that if you can do your job just fine and aren’t concerned about discrimination or repercussions, you don’t need to tell your employer all the details of your leave.
Open and honest conversations will work wonders in building acceptance around mental health days, but the onus is not on you to facilitate these – that’s where your union can help.
What should you do on a mental health day?
So now that you’ve got a day to recharge and reset, what do you do? Honestly, that’s entirely up to you. Get some fresh air. Treat yourself to a massage or some self-care. Read a book, catch up on life admin or play board games with the kids. Do absolutely nothing at all. Whatever it is, just do you – and try not to feel guilty about it.
The one thing you can always do: Ask your union for support
Australian Unions supports your right to take a paid mental health day. If you need support or you have questions about your rights – reach out. We’re always here to help.