Even when you’re feeling terrible physically, it can be difficult to justify taking a day off from work. Most of us have dragged ourselves into the office at some point when we likely should have stayed at home.
Taking a day off for a mental health problem should be no different than if you’re physically unwell. But the stigma surrounding mental health, as well as potential issues with your employer, can make it difficult.
One in 6.8 people experience mental health problems in the workplace, according to the Mental Health Foundation, yet many suffer in silence. Research by the charity Mind surveyed 44,000 workers and found that only half of those who experienced poor mental health talked to their employers about it.
Fiona Thomas, author of “Depression in a Digital Age,” told Yahoo Finance UK that she has only ever felt comfortable taking a mental health day once.
“That was because my boss could see that I was going through a depressive episode. She didn’t make a big deal about it. She just asked if I would like to go home and I said yes. I was so grateful for that and I’ve never really had a positive experience since that one,” Thomas said.
“When I was in another company in a management role it was high pressure, and I waited until I was completely burned out before I took any time off,” she said. “There is definitely this culture of not being sick enough for a day off until you’re totally broken, and that has to change.”
The law behind mental health days
In the UK, there is no legal difference between taking a sick day for your mental health and for a physical problem. If you are unwell, you will be expected to follow your employer’s absence policies and processes.
To get protection under the 2010 Equality Act, you have to show that your mental health problem is a disability — that it has a substantial, adverse, and long term effect on your normal day-to-day activities.
If a worker has a mental health condition considered to be a disability, they can work with their employer to agree on a reasonable adjustment to help them do their job, which might mean taking temporary leave.
Employers are bound by the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of their staff. If you feel like your mental health state is preventing you from doing your job, it’s best to try to reach an agreement with your employer. This could mean flexible working or an occasional personal day. Prolonged stress can lead to burnout, and could contribute to mental illness.
There are no guidelines outlining when you should take a mental health day, or what constitutes being unwell enough to stay home. If your mental health is affecting your ability to work, then taking time off, including to seek treatment and support, might help. It might also be worth asking yourself if going to work would make you feel better or worse.
“I suffered with depression on-and-off since childhood, but the thing that made me too sick to work was the anxiety I developed later,” Aubrey Allegretti, a 25-year-old professional, told Yahoo Finance UK. “Sometimes I could make it out of the house, but had to work in a separate room in the office to everyone else. On other days I had to call in sick because I couldn’t make it past the front door.
“My bosses and colleagues were very understanding when I had to take a mental health day,” Allegretti said. “It still made calling in sick so hard — wondering whether to apologise or if that gave the impression I was to blame for a legitimate sickness that I was working so hard to control?”
“I couldn’t look at or touch my phone for hours afterwards, for fear of feeling so shameful for using it to tell an already under-pressure manager I wouldn’t be able to make it in.”
Addressing poor mental health among employees isn’t just essential for their wellbeing, but could be advantageous for companies too. In 2017 to 2018, the Health and Safety Executive estimated that around 15.4 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety.
Allowing staff to be open about a mental health problem and providing an understanding, sympathetic working environment can help employers retain a strong, healthy, and productive workforce.
“There is still a huge stigma about taking a mental health day, but it can affect your body just as much as it affects your brain,” Allegretti said. “If you don’t rest, recuperate, and recover you’ll only end up making the illness worse, leading to more chronic problems that will force you off work for longer.”