What You Need To Know About Taking A Mental Health Sick Day

Look after number one.

While the country may be in the midst of a mental health awakening, that doesn’t mean talking about what’s going on inside our heads is any easier - particularly when it comes to work.

That’s why the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is “workplace wellbeing”, hoping to create working environments where employers encourage good mental health and employees feel empowered to speak their minds.

But while we are encouraged to speak about our mental health or even take mental health sick day, for many it’s easier said than done.

According to a 2014 poll by Mind and YouGov, one in five (19%) people have taken a day off sick because of stress. But of those people, the vast majority (90%) gave their employer a different reason for their absence, such as an upset stomach (44%) or a headache (7%).

A recent study found that while more than half of employees (53%) feel comfortable talking about mental health at work, just 11% of those surveyed felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their line manager. Of those, 15% said they had faced negative consequences, such as dismissal or disciplinary as a result.

We spoke to three charities to get advice on empowering employees to take a mental health sick day (whether you decide to fully disclose your reason for being off sick or not).

Posed by model.
mapodile via Getty Images
Posed by model.

What Is A Mental Health Sick Day?

While the idea of mental health sick days are creeping into public consciousness, there is no set definition. That said they are generally understood to be taking time off to manage stress or another mental health condition.

Chris O’ Sullivan, head of workplace mental health at the Mental Health Foundation tells HuffPost UK: “It’s a proactive thing you can do when you are starting to feel stressed or worn-out. It might be that you plan a mental health day after you’ve met a big deadline, or you take one at short notice after a stressful period at home.”

Some companies offer discretionary mental health sick days to allow staff to recuperate. The Mental Health Foundation, for example, offers staff three mental health days per year in addition to annual leave.

However other charities are wary of differentiating between mental health days and sick days.

A spokesperson for Mind, the UK’s leading mental health charity tells HuffPost UK: “Sick days can and should be used for a mental health problem, just as for a physical health problem, if it’s severe enough that someone needs time off.

“Creating a distinct category such as ‘mental health sick days’ could undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day to day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Lotte Lane, digital editor at The Blurt Foundation, explains that just like regular sick days, employees should use their discretion to work out how ‘bad’ their symptoms need to be to warrant a day off work.

“As a guideline we need to ask ourselves if our illness is stopping us working to our best ability. Will going to work make us feel better or worse? If we went to work, would we be able to do our job effectively? Is it safe for us to work? With some kinds of jobs (such as those that involve driving, heavy machinery or looking after other people) our symptoms might put us or others at risk.

“We also need to consider if our attendance at work that day is absolutely essential. Will the world crumble without us? If not, it’s probably OK to take a mental health day.”

What To Do On A Mental Health Day

Again, there is no hard and fast rule. It’s up to you. Take some time to think about what might be best for you, depending on how you’re feeling at that moment.

This might be a bit of “me time” doing things you enjoy or exploring a new hobby to really take your mind off things.

Lane explains: “What self-care looks like differs from person to person. Some of us might benefit from spending our mental health day snuggled under blankets on the sofa, or in bed; others might find a peaceful walk in nature, or time with loved ones more helpful.”

It might be a good opportunity to be more proactive by booking a doctors appointment or addressing some of the things that are causing unnecessary stress, such as sorting out your finances, Lane adds.

If you decide to seek medical advice for your mental health, read our handy explainer on what to expect when you head to the GP.

But remember this is sacred time to allow you to focus on what you need, try and keep it as focused as possible.

O’Sullivan adds: “Try not to end up committing it to someone else, or sneaking a peek at work stuff – it’s about you and what helps you out.”

How To Speak To Your Boss About Your Mental Health

While some people have had positive experiences talking to their boss about their mental health, others have not. So it’s understandable if you don’t feel comfortable disclosing the full story.

Mind says: “It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, you could meet them one to one to discuss what’s going on.

“Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step. If you’re thinking of opening up about your mental health for the first time, also think about where you want the meeting to take place.”

O’Sullivan recommends planning what you want to speak about ahead of the meeting. “It can be good to talk to a trusted friend, GP colleague or mentor first. You can also talk to your employee assistance programme if you have one,” he says.

Your Rights As An Employee

Lane says: “Our employers are legally required to respect our mental health too. They have a duty of care for their employees, and ensure their health, safety and welfare under the Health and Safety Act. Minimising any work-related stress and looking after our wellbeing is part of our employer’s responsibility.

“Under the Equality Act 2010, mental health problems that are substantial, adverse, and have a long term effect on normal day-to-day activities count as a disability. Employers have a legal duty to provide reasonable adjustments for an employee who has a disability – this could include the need to take mental health days.”

Mind adds: “Such adjustments vary from workplace to workplace, but typically you might be offered a change of working hours – start time, finish times, breaks, a change of working environment, and more regular catch ups with your manager to discuss workloads, priorities and stress and anxiety levels.”

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@getconnected.org.uk