According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems are a growing concern. They are complex and diverse and the spectrum of mental health conditions can range from common mental conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression, through to severe and enduring mental illness. Figures from the Mental Health Foundation’s Fundamental Facts about Mental Health Report 2016 showed the prevalence of mental health issues and estimated that a fifth of men (19.5%) and a third of women (33.7%) have experienced a diagnosed mental health condition. And, according to figures from the Labour Force Survey, 8.1% of all absences in 2016 were due to mental health reasons.
The role of stress
It is not uncommon for people to become stressed in the workplace. Stress isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, but it can build up over time and, if left unchecked, can reach the point at which it makes us ill. The knock-on effects of stress (e.g. panic attacks, anxiety, headaches) can take a while to appear and it is common for people to keep going despite the feelings of stress until they suddenly reach the point at which they absolutely cannot function. It is too late to do anything pre-emptively by this point.
Mental health and work
A comprehensive survey carried out in 2016 (‘Business in the Community’s National Employee Mental Wellbeing survey’) assessed workplace mental health in the UK based on responses from over 19,000 respondents. The results highlighted the complexity of the interaction between work and mental health issues.
Some key findings
- 77% of employees have experienced symptoms of poor mental health at some point in their lives.
- 29% of employees have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
- 62% of employees attributed their symptoms of poor mental health to work or said that work was a contributing factor.
- 60% of board members and senior managers believe their organisation supports people with mental health issues although only 11% of employees had discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager.
- Half of employees say they would not discuss mental health with their line manager.
- 63% of line managers feel they have to put corporate interests before employee wellbeing.
- 35% of employees did not approach anyone for support the last time they experienced poor mental health.
An employee’s mental health condition may be wholly unconnected to work, but work could be exacerbating the situation. Whilst employers are not accountable for external elements, they do have a duty of care to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to support good mental health (as well as physical health).
What is a mental health day?
In some countries, notably the United States, some employers have embraced the concept of the mental health day – an employee taking a day off work sick for reasons other than physical illness. The idea of a mental health day can be a contentious one for employers and employees. It’s generally accepted that employees will only take a day of sickness absence when they absolutely cannot function at work, but the concept of the mental health day turns this notion on its head. People who take a mental health day might be physically well enough to come to work but can sense that their mental health is suffering and fear that they are at risk of becoming ill unless they take a break. Maybe their stress levels are building up and are causing physical symptoms such as difficulties sleeping, or feelings of anxiety or panic, or maybe they are struggling to keep their stress and emotions in check.
The rationale behind the mental health day is that taking a day out from work as sickness absence for the sole purpose of doing something good for your own mental health and wellbeing might prevent the stress levels from escalating. It’s not about shirking your work responsibilities or ‘skiving’ – it’s about being proactive and taking control, and trying to minimise the risk of physical illness that may be caused by ongoing mental struggles. And the theory behind the mental health day is that it will minimise unauthorised absences (e.g. people lying about being ill) and presenteeism (when people come to work when they aren’t really well enough to work effectively and productively).
The concept of the mental health day is far from commonplace in the UK but it’s something that organisations might want to consider implementing as part of their support for employees. Organisations that are considering offering mental health days would need to think clearly about how they would be written into company policies and how the process would be managed, and in terms of our general understanding and acceptance of mental health conditions, there are a number of potential barriers to their implementation:
- The mental health taboo. Mental health issues are still not discussed as openly as physical illness and are a taboo subject for many. Many people who wouldn’t have any hesitation talking to their line manager about the need for a day off due to physical health conditions may well feel scared to admit that things are getting on top of them psychologically.
- No diagnosis, so is it real? Employees who are experiencing diagnosed mental health conditions that have a long-term effect on their ability to carry out their day-to-day activities can expect reasonable adjustments from their employers because their condition would be classed as a disability. However, a lack of mental health diagnosis does not actually mean that a person isn’t struggling psychologically with issues such as stress, panic or anxiety. These issues might not be obviously apparent to others so it’s tempting for others to perceive stress as an excuse for securing time off.
- Is it really so bad? Because everyone responds to pressure differently, what might cause overwhelming stress for one person may not cause any problem whatsoever for another. This can make it very difficult for others to empathise.
Further advice on health and work
Support and guidance about work and health can be sought from Fit for Work, which offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Employed people who have been off work due to illness for four weeks or more can be referred for a telephone assessment with a Fit for Work case manager in order to identify all the obstacles preventing the person from returning to work. The Fit for Work case manager can also provide recommendations about how the obstacles can be addressed and to potentially enable an early return to work. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).