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.