Addressing ‘mental health day’ stigma

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Traditionally, the ‘mental health day’ in Australia has been equated with ‘chucking a sickie’ – taking time off when not really ill. However, one expert feels it is time employers get serious about the mental well-being of their employees, and it starts with a shift in terminology.

Mental health issues will be experienced by 45% of adult Australians, with 25% experiencing anxiety. Additionally, Australia has a suicide rate of 2,200 a year, with an additional 66,000 attempts. Despite these terrifying figures, mental health continues to be ignored by both employees and employers alike.

Michele Grow, CEO of Davidson Trahaire Corpsych, stated that placing emphasis on ‘mental health days’ as separate from ‘sick days’ has stigmatised the need for employees to recharge their minds. “Unfortunately what that does is dissipates the importance of mental health as a real concern for employees and employers alike,” she said. “We don’t say to someone ‘I am having a flu day’ or ‘I am having a broken leg day’, but suddenly we want to differentiate between mental health and any other kind of health,” Grow said. “Language really matters and someone is either well enough to be at work or they’re not.”

Grow added that although mental health should be taken just as seriously as physical illness, employers still need to identify the drivers that contribute to a breakdown in an employee’s mental wellbeing. Stress (both job and lifestyle related), heavy workloads, organisational change, being unable to disconnect from the workplace when at home (such as checking emails on the weekend) and fatigue from lifestyle or long hours can all contribute to a breakdown in an employee’s mental health.

Although removing the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace should be top priority, HR managers also need to take a proactive approach in training their staff to recognise the drivers and signs of decreasing mental health. “Unlike having a broken arm, some of these other things you can’t see,” Grow said.

Grow emphasised the need for employees to evaluate themselves and stated they should regularly assess their overall wellbeing, right down to simple things like knowing when to take a break:  have you at least got up from your desk in the last two hours? Have you walked outside, even just for ten minutes?

Grow also recommended the use of online health-risk assessment tools. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can also provide useful, confidential services to troubled employees.

Ultimately, resolving mental health issues in the work place – or preventing them altogether – may involve time off, but it is important not to differentiate mental and physical health. Grow does not recommend that prescribed days off is the ultimate solution, but if employees feel they aren’t coping, they need to feel comfortable addressing that.

  • Jacqueline Johns on 14/06/2013 11:16:31 AM

    There is a simple solution to the problem of anxiety and stress in the workplace, which when applied, will eradicate the need for employees to be taking "mental health days". Onsite relaxation/meditation classes will minimize stress and anxiety and improve the work performance (and life performance) of employees. Employers need to educate themselves as to the many benefits (personal and business) of this practice and encourage their employees to attend regular onsite classes. In fact, the outcomes would be so beneficial to the business in terms of productivity, absenteeism and engagement, that I would recommend employers make regular attendance compulsory.

    There is absolutely no reason for the poor mental health figures to continue to rise when meditation has been shown to alleviate stress and anxiety - the main contributors to mental AND physical ill-health.

    Wise up employers and show appropriate, effective leadership in this crucial area.

  • HR Melb on 14/06/2013 3:52:21 PM

    There is no 'simple' solution for employers when it comes to addressing or helping someone with a mental illness (especially if the illness is unrelated to work) Having worked with an employee who suffers from mental illness, there is no easy 'fix'! Employers and or HR can only offer support and refer/suggest that the person seek professional help - HR are not psychologists! Onsite relaxation & meditation programs may certainly have its benefits but it wont prevent a mental illness. Further awareness and education for employers including HR is the key to understanding and addressing mental health in the workplace.

  • JM on 14/06/2013 4:12:18 PM

    I respectfully disagree that onsite meditation is a 'simple solution'. I believe it's not for everyone. Some just cannot establish and sustain the necessary 'quiet of mind' to benefit from this practice. Especially so I think when the practice is linked to work.

    Consider the public sector - to me it seems curious suggesting employees be paid to attend 'compulsory' mediation/relaxation classes at work - imagine the (likely negative) public perception of 'public servants taking paid meditation breaks'.

    In response to the original post/article, I agree that EAPs should receive far more promotion/attention and much work can be done to reduce stigma around accessing these services. Every workplace should have these programs in place. That's one step in achieveing better support of mental health and wellbeing in workplaces and here employers can really prove they are 'serious' about the mental health of their staff. Establishing a culture of asking colleagues if they are ok is also a good grass roots practice I think. It demonstrates consideration, empathy and shows that caring about mental health is not just a problem for the head of organisations to sort out, but something each individual can be empowered to address and resolve.

    I also wonder how accurate statements like "...mental health continues to be ignored by both employees and employers alike" are? I suppose I don't relate to this as it doesn't reflect my personal experience/observations in the organisation I work for. I do agree with the original comments however that more training can be done to identify and address drivers of mental health problems in workplaces and picking up cues from affected staff. I also agree with the point that employees/individuals need to take stock, self-assess and communicate when struggling so that we're not left exercising guesswork or doing nothing due to ignorance when it comes to mental wellbeing.

  • Amy on 21/06/2013 3:34:09 PM

    I would be very interested in anyone's propsals regarding "mental health days" that are offered to employees. We are looking at trying to reward colleagues with a "mental health day" out of their personal leave entitlements every 6 months. Does anyone do something like this??

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