Breaking the stigma around taking a mental health day off work
Mental Health: Beyond Awareness is a five-day campaign asking what we can do for mental health issues beyond “raising awareness”. Young people are more aware of mental health issues than ever, but our services are broken, the internet is stressing us out, and self-medication is on the rise. Who is campaigning for change? And how can we help ourselves? This week, Dazed is aiming to find out.
If you have mental health issues, some days it can be difficult to function, or even get out of bed. You wake up after the fifth alarm and stare at the ceiling, trying to figure out how to get out of going to work today. Do you tell your boss the truth – that getting out of bed feels like the biggest, most daunting task in the world right now? That you’re too anxious to face the journey to work, or haven’t slept because you’re overwhelmed with stress? Or do you lie and pull a sickie?
Mental health awareness is more prevalent than ever, but it can still feel like there’s little understanding and sympathy when it comes to mental health issues in the workplace or at school. While depression and anxiety feel like things you can talk about – but can’t actually let impact your day-to-day life – other issues such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder hold a stronger stigma to them, making them even harder to speak about.
In the UK, there’s no legal difference between taking a mental health day or a physical health day off work, and yet employees are typically more comfortable disclosing food poisoning than stress or depression. This makes sense given the lack of understanding around mental health – it can feel like an impossible task to explain that you just can’t muster up the courage to have a shower and leave the house. Offering this reasoning to friends can be difficult enough, but trying to rationalise this to someone you have a professional relationship with can feel completely futile.
“Mental health awareness is more prevalent than ever, but it can still feel like there’s little understanding and sympathy when it comes to mental health issues in the workplace or at school”
With last year’s World Mental Health Day centred on ‘workplace wellbeing’, and this year’s Awareness Week on ‘stress’, it’s clear that a dialogue needs to be opened up between employers and employees. A 2017 study by Business In The Community found that only 13 per cent of people feel able to disclose a mental health issue to their manager, and – shockingly – 15 per cent of people who did were subject to disciplinary measures, demotion, or dismissal. It’s no wonder pulling a sickie feels like the easier, and less risky option.
We wanted to find out what our readers thought, so we asked you in our Dazed Group Chat. “I guess it depends on the level of openness you have with your boss,” Faith Musni said, “My previous employer was the type who didn’t believe that mental health was a thing (she believed it could be overcome with ‘mind over matter’), so I’d probably just take leave and pretend I was tired.”
In a survey conducted by QBE Business Insurance last month, it was found that 29 per cent of managers believe employees should not discuss mental health issues at work, with the percentage surprisingly being higher among young managers.
This isn’t necessarily representative of all businesses, but given that the UK’s mental health system is broken, having the confidence to explain to your boss how you’re feeling is even harder when there isn’t anywhere to turn for helpful advice. Plus, when you’re young and starting out on your career path, you want to do everything you can to impress – admitting that you struggle with mental health issues might feel like expressing a weakness to your boss, and could make you fearful of losing your job or not living up to expectations. We also seem to be constantly reminded that we’re replaceable in the workplace, meaning we’re more likely to work longer hours, take on extra work and network 24/7, piling on the stress and definitely not helping our mental health.
This dilemma is also prevalent among students who, as well as often working part time while studying, feel as if they need to live up to high expectations at uni. “I’m graduating art school, and trying to balance pleasing my own expectations and that of the school,” a reader explained, “I hate not living up to my potential, and it’s hard to explain to other students and teachers. Even knowing when I need a mental health day off can be complicated, I don’t want it to seem like I’m slacking off.” The fear of not being believed, or making a big deal over nothing is far too frequent when it comes to discussions about revealing mental health issues.
“I always say I’m sick,” Chloé Cassini revealed, “Firstly because mental health isn’t really understood by most people, and I wouldn’t want my boss to think I’m ‘faking’ or that I’m lazy. But also because it brings about a lot of personal questions that I don’t want to answer to coworkers. Not talking about it, and not having to justify myself is part of the needed break.”
Although, reassuringly, many businesses do seem to be actively encouraging people to disclose their mental health problems and take days off when needed. “I am lucky enough to work with a bunch of very supportive colleagues and bosses,” another reader told us on Facebook, “which has allowed me to be open about my mental health issues, and take days off and work from home where needed.” Last year, a US-based web developer’s tweet went viral when she shared an email between her and her boss, in which he thanked her for being truthful about needing to take mental health days.View image on Twitter
When the CEO responds to your out of the office email about taking sick leave for mental health and reaffirms your decision.
There isn’t one answer when it comes to the question of taking mental health days off: it all depends how comfortable you are, and how accepting your boss is. It’s reassuring to see that many businesses are taking steps towards openness and acceptance, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s important that we keep discussing it openly, because we need to remove that stigma completely – it should be easy to email your boss when you just can’t face the day.