By Edie-Louise Diemar in HRM Magazine – the news site of The Australian HR institute.
Scott Bidmead, co-founder of mental health app Euda, may hold a degree in psychology and have spent much of his career working in the wellness industry, but he still knows first-hand just how easy it is to miss the signs of an employee in distress.
“I had a general manager and he was actually a friend before he came and worked for me, so I thought I knew him pretty well,” says Bidmead.
“He was the type of person that I would always ask the advice of. He was so supportive and always willing to give me his time.
“We worked together for about a year and he never spoke up, but I realised later, I never really asked the question. It turns out the whole time he was struggling with really severe anxiety and OCD.”
Bidmead’s employee ended up leaving the company and took a long time recovering before he could return to the workforce.
“That was a big wake-up call for me. I wish I had spoken to him more and understood what he was going through before it impacted his life so much.”
Understanding an employee’s mental health has never been more important for HR and managers. In a survey conducted by the Black Dog Institute, 78 per cent of respondents reported worsening mental health since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of all this R U OK? Day seems even more pertinent.
The pandemic has put us in a tailspin of working harder and harder to meet new challenges – in fact, a Harvard study found people working from home spend an additional 48 minutes connected to their office each day. But this flurry of activity is unlikely to be sustainable.
The evolution of mental health days
Mental health days are a modern invention. For many organisations, they fall under personal leave, the idea being you are taking care of your mental health the same way you would your physical health.
However, it hasn’t always been that way. Dan Auerbach, Organisational Psychology Consultant with Associated Employee Assistance Providers, EmployeeAssistance.com.au says Australian workers have often had a cynical opinion of mental health days. They fall in with “sickies” as a way of skiving off work. But we are getting better at addressing their usefulness in the workplace.
“We’re finally ready for a new conversation around mental health days: ‘is it okay to take a break from work when you’re feeling under-motivated or under-energised, or indeed you’re struggling with your mental health in a serious way?” he says.
“I think there is a place all along that spectrum for a day off sometimes when you don’t feel like you’re able to work.”
Mental health days aim to reduce presenteeism, or turning up to work but not actually being productive. The benefits of mental health days are that they give employees time to recharge if they’re feeling burnt out and can provide much needed time to seek additional help if poor mental health has become an ongoing issue for the employee.
An important distinction to be aware of is the difference between mental health and mental illness – they’re not terms that can be used interchangeably. Mental health is like physical health and has natural ups and downs. Some days you wake up feeling like you can run a marathon, and other days walking to the bus stops feels like a hike.
Mental illness usually refers to a diagnosable condition. People with mental illness can have fantastic mental health, while someone with no mental illness might have poor mental health.
An employee taking a mental health day could be anywhere on this spectrum and they have no real obligation to tell their employer why they might need a mental health day.
“There is a fear that mental health days will be abused by staff or taken too frequently and I think that just means HR or managers should be having a conversation with their employees about why they might need so much time off. Do they need ongoing support?” says Auerbach.
Having the conversation
Before employees can consider taking a mental health day they need to know the option is available and they won’t be judged or criticised for taking time out for their mental health.
“It’s worth remembering just how much mental health has been stigmatised in the past,” says Bidmead. “We’re making more progress in speaking about it but there is still this idea that mental health is a bit fluffy.”
If COVID-19 has a silver lining it could be the increase in mental health conversations. From the early stages of lockdown, there has been a focus on the psychological impacts of isolation and the feeling of grief that has settled over us. But that doesn’t mean everyone is ready to talk about their vulnerabilities, so it’s important HR takes a proactive approach in opening up those lines of communication and creating a safe space for employees to speak up.
“You need to be consistent with your workplace culture,” says Auerbach, “There’s not much point in telling employees they can take a mental health day if the culture is one of clock-watching or very punitive environment. You have to build up trust between employer and employee.”
Noticing employee behaviour and whether they’re showing signs of poor mental health is much easier in a face to face workplace. Checking in online can be difficult so Auerbach recommends taking the incidental conversations of everyday office life and formalising them in regular catch up.
“Some workplaces are having 20-minute coffee catch-ups every week just to keep those lines of communication open and making sure employers are checking in on employees.”
Beyond mental health days
Of course, while mental health days help, they should be considered within a wider mental health framework, says psychiatrist Dr Frank Chow from 2OP Health.
“You need to also look into the individual. Everyone is different. Some people are more likely to push on and don’t want to take a day off. Some people are more likely to take a day off every now and then.
“So when you talk about mental health days it’s not one-size-fits-all.”
Chow says mental health needs to be an ongoing discussion within workplaces to overcome cultural or personal roadblocks that keep employees from addressing their own issues.
In Chow’s experience, it is the people who don’t open up or discuss their mental health that are the most at risk of breakdown. He encourages workplaces to begin mental health conversations early and address the benefits of seeking help.
“Mental health support should be a means to make you stronger,” says Chow. “It should, over time, change your mindset to become more resilient. So the conversation should be around how seeking help is not a weakness, it’s actually about becoming stronger.”
Bidmead says HR should be prepared for the conversation moving beyond what HR can provide. He believes having third-party experts are really important.
“HR doesn’t need to be the experts in mental health, but they do need to know who to speak to if the answer to ‘are you ok?’ is ‘no’.”