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May 2, 2008

HR Fact Friday: Mental Health Days Go Mainstream

Filed under: Benefits7:00 am

Business management and HR perceptions change in small increments over long periods of time. Given enough time, these small increments of change become accepted standards of practice. Here’s a prime example: The ridiculous term “Mental Health Day”. For some reason I cringe when I hear it used. 10 or 15 years ago this term was used somewhat covertly when confiding in a trusted coworker that you really weren’t ill when you called in sick last Friday; you just needed a day off and didn’t want to use up a vacation day. So you simply called in sick to have a paid day off.

So when did the phrase “mental health day” go mainstream and become a legit, openly stated phrase to justify not going to work but still getting paid?

Employers have long recognized that there were personal, unplanned circumstances that could require an employee to miss work. Yes, like it or not, employees did indeed have a life outside of the workplace. So employers granted a certain number of “personal days” to each employee as part of the benefit package to show flexibility and understanding for life’s stresses and curveballs.  What ended up happening was grateful employees were appreciative for the personal days and used them as fast as they could. Oddly there was no inverse reduction to the number of collective sick days being taken on an annual basis.  Employees it seems still felt entitled to use their ‘earned’ sick time however they wanted; even if that meant ‘wink, wink’ taking a mental health day every now and then.  But hey, thanks for the personal days. They are great!

So this brings me to an HR News article in the May issue of HR Magazine (page 26) that reports (complete with a chart) on the top reasons employees take mental health days. I had to do a double take. Has taking a “Mental Health Day” really become an acceptable, out in the open, norm of modern corporate culture? Knowing this seemingly takes all the fun out of it.

So what are the top reasons people call in to take a mental health day? A recent survey of 1,848 people measuring stress in America conducted in September 2007 by the American Psychological Association identified the following reasons for stress that resulted in an unplanned, paid (i.e called in sick) mental health day.

1. Family or relationship issue (30%)

2. Work stress or workload (20%)

3. Financial, legal or personal issues (15%)

4. Burned out, bored, unmotivated (17%)

5. Do not take mental health days (18%)

This data leads me to conclude that as long as the “mental health day” is related to stress management it’s legit to call it for what it is. In other words, if you soldiered on and went in to work when afflicted with high levels of stress, you would basically be ineffective anyway, so why bother. Taking a mental health day is actually improving the productivity and quality of your employer.  I’ll agree with this as a somewhat justifiable condition. But seriously, how many “mental health days” are taken that fall into the category of true stress management?

Call me old fashioned, but I still believe that if we are physically able, we are paid a wage and expected to be at work during our scheduled shifts. That’s part of what being a professional means. I’m all for flexibility and support work/life balance, however I still believe the [wink] “mental health day” is the exception to the rule and isn’t something to be brought out into the mainstream as an acceptable justification to take an unplanned day off. If you are stressed or burned out, talk to your boss and schedule some time off.  That’s what vacation and personal time benefits are for. If it’s more serious than a day or two to recharge, then talk to your doctor and HR dept about short term disability or FMLA benefits.


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