Call for new public holiday to address mental health at work

Should employers create policies that allow staff to take mental health days off at any time?

Call for new public holiday to address mental health at work

If someone gets food poisoning or the flu, or has any physical health issues, employers encourage that person to be off work, according to Being CEO Irene Gallagher.

“But if someone suffers depression, anxiety, or becomes so mentally exhausted that they can’t get out of bed, a lack of support for mental health sick days means they need to hide their mental health so they can take time to hit the reset button,” said Gallagher.

“Invariably they slink back to work full of unwarranted guilt.”

Indeed, the NSW Mental Health Consumer Advisory group Being has called for a new public holiday to change the conversation about ‘sick days’ and end stigma about mental health at work.

The organisation challenges the NSW and/or Federal government to make a powerful statement in support of mentally healthy workplaces by declaring October 10, World Mental Health Day, a public holiday from 2020.

Moreover, Being challenges employers to create policies that make it acceptable to take mental health days off work at any time of the year.

Opening up to trusted peers is a vital part of suicide prevention, which is the theme of World Mental Health Day in 2019. “If we are serious about

encouraging people to talk about how they feel, then let’s apply that to the place where we spend most of our waking hours – the workplace,” Gallagher added.

“The time has come to confront workplace cultures where people need to hide their lived experiences of mental health issues because they fear being stigmatised or even sacked.”

Gallagher said stigma about mental health is so endemic that ‘taking a mental health day’ is still considered a joke or a euphemism for laziness.

“That thinking perpetuates the dangerous belief that having mental health episodes makes us a burden to others. Hidden episodes can become acute and/or chronic, sometimes leading to suicidal ideation and attempted or actual suicide.”

Suicide has surged in NSW in recent years, especially by men. The latest NSW Government figures say 868 people (including 674 men) died by intentional self-harm in 2017, the highest for 20 years. It is estimated that for every death by suicide, 30 people attempt suicide.

The reality is nearly half of all Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetimes and in any given year more than a million will experience anxiety or depression or both.

“People with mental health issues are not a burden,” said Gallagher. “They are nearly half the population, so they are everyone’s loved ones”.

Being acknowledges the investment the NSW government made to develop its Mentally Healthy Workplaces Strategy 2018-2022, though we note it did not include specific mentions of employees’ rights to take mental health sick leave when needed.

“It’s time to turn the tables on that dangerous cliché; employees taking sick days to sustain good mental health is just as valid a reason as physical health,” said Gallagher.

There are also business costs to staff remaining at work through a mental health episode. Because people tend to hide these episodes, they can become distracted, unproductive, and even develop physical illnesses.

The business world recognises this as ‘presenteeism’. A 2016 report calculated presenteeism costs the Australia economy $34 billion a year.

Being also urges organisations to show leadership by introducing detailed policies and training to support and encourage mental health sick days. This could involve circulating a policy and even making suggestions for how to use a mental health day.

Moreover, State governments can help by developing training for managers to write policies, procedures and supportive language around the need to take mental health days.

The following are ten things to do on a mental health day off work 

  • Have lunch with a trusted friend or family member, or
  • Make two phone calls to those people
  • Sit in the sun for 30 minutes, maybe reading a book
  • Take your shoes off and walk on the grass and/or sand for 30 minutes
  • Plan a holiday
  • Have a swim, especially in the ocean
  • Start sorting out a debt that’s been bothering you
  • Play a favourite greatest hits album - sing your heart out and dance too!
  • Gardening or cooking
  • Connect with your community through volunteering or other involvement.

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