I can count on my hands the number of sick days I’ve taken in my working life of 15-years. And I don’t even need my fingers to count how many mental health days I’ve taken: because it’s zero.
The same goes for my colleagues, I don’t know anyone who has openly taken a mental health day off work – despite many of them desperately needing to. Let’s remember: one in five Australians experience mental health disorders. That’s 20% of us, nearly four million people.
Regardless of the wide-spread prevalence, there’s this notion in Australia that calling in sick – especially for mental health issues – is lazy, weak, a piss-take.
Sick days aren’t seen as an entitlement, they’re considered a nuisance, office gossip fodder and, in some cases, a step towards the unemployment line.
And so, instead of taking time off work to look after our physical and mental health, we work ourselves to the bone, develop a weird stress rash and end up crying in an office toilet stall (no, just me?).
It’s interesting to note that since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, there has been a significant drop in the number of sick days workers are taking, even though we’re all living in the most uncertain, challenging and anxiety-inducing of times. Go figure.
“I’m seeing people experiencing burnout on the back of COVID-19 because they’re working harder, longer and not taking holidays. Not to mention the extra layer of stress we’re all experiencing because of the uncertainty,” explains Dr Jodie Lowinger, a clinical psychologist and the CEO and founder of The Sydney Anxiety Clinic.
Whether you’re working from the couch in your pyjamas or commuting to an office reluctantly wearing a bra, mental health days matter. So why aren’t we taking them?
One word: stigma. A seminal piece of research published by the American Psychological Association in 2009 found that 58% of workers don’t want people with mental illness in their workplaces.
There are countless horror stories on Twitter. As one woman revealed, “I called in to take a mental health day and my boss told me anxiety isn’t a real illness and that I needed a doctor’s note.”
It’s at this point that I seriously start considering getting ‘mental health is health’ tattooed on my neck in bold script.
“There is still stigma around mental health, so people feel weak, not good enough and guilty for taking mental health days. Oftentimes, people just push through,” notes Dr Lowinger, whose new book The Mind Strength Method is out next month. “But pushing through can undermine our capacity to perform and lead to disengagement, agitation, avoidance and second-guessing.”
As it goes, our “suck it up and get on with it” attitude is having the opposite effect. The Productivity Commission estimates that mental ill-health costs Australia up to $180 billion per year.
It’s the ultimate health cliché, but prevention is better than a cure. “When we are looking after our mental and emotional health, we’re going to be more productive, satisfied and motivated,” says Dr Lowinger.
When you put it like that, it makes total sense and sounds so simple. But in reality, asking your manager for a mental health day can be a confronting, vulnerable and – depending on the culture of the organisation and it’s HR policies – a job-threatening experience. It’s much easier to say “I have a stomach virus” than “I’m having uncontrollable panic attacks” or “I can’t get out bed today because I’m so desperately low.”
For these conversations to go well, Dr Lowinger says employees should be transparent, assertive and respectful. The same goes for employers. “Open communication and mutual respect are part and parcel of a high performing organisation,” she explains, adding that mental health says should be used for genuine self-care to rest and restore.
Remember that viral tweet when an American boss thanked his employee for “setting an example” and “helping to cut through the stigma” for using a sick day for mental health?
“I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations [sic],” he wrote. Same Ben, same.
When the CEO responds to your out of the office email about taking sick leave for mental health and reaffirms your decision. 💯 pic.twitter.com/6BvJVCJJFq— madalyn (@madalynrose) June 30, 2017
The hope is that one day, taking a mental health break won’t be a courageous act or a shameful secret. It should be as easy as calling in sick with the flu because you don’t want to cough all over your colleagues (that’s how viruses spread).
It’s 2021, let’s cancel stigma, normalise taking mental health days and rewrite the tacky inspirational quote: She believed she could, but she needed a break, so she took some time off to restore and it wasn’t a big deal.