When employees request sick leave, they are not the only ones who feel the pain; sickness-related absences from work disrupt business and cost the UK economy £100 billion in lost revenue every year. Still, most employers accept that a colleague bedridden by agonising stomach cramps or debilitated by the latest winter virus cannot perform their role effectively until they’ve recovered. Yet this understanding seems to vanish when the illness in question is not physical, but mental.
According to a 2015 survey, a whopping 69% of bosses believe that mental ailments such as stress, anxiety or depression are not valid reasons for taking time off work. According to another, one third of employers wouldn’t accept a sick note from employees if it was for a mental disorder.
Such attitudes are obviously frustrating for the employees involved, but they could also be incredibly damaging for companies run by such managers. Indeed, actively encouraging your employees to take off ‘mental health days’ when necessary could reap dividends.
Each year, 25% of people in the UK experience a mental health problem. (As a comparison, the number of annual flu cases rarely exceeds 20% of the population). Many of these illnesses are severe enough to impede their ability to work - an examination of 28,700 sick notes by the Department of Work & Pensions found that 35% described various mental illness.
Consequently, almost every business will employ workers who are affected by mental health problems. The good news is that the vast majority of these cases will be low-level and non-chronic. They may be caused by workplace-induced problems such as overwork or fatigue. For these employees, short-term sick leave is likely to remedy the problem. As illness causes a significant drop in performance, offering employees a chance to recuperate should correspond with a jump in productivity upon their return. It may even boost their performance to a whole new level - study after study has shown that taking a break increases performance.
Mental illness, particularly when prolonged, often triggers physical symptoms. This means that even if workers are discouraged from taking mental health days they will often end up requiring sick leave regardless. Recognition from both employer and employee that mental suffering is a problem in its own right would avoid prolonging the illness and aid recovery.
When surveyed, 42% of workers considered resigning while suffering from mental health, and 14% actually did. Absenteeism may be costly and time-consuming, but it pales in comparison to the cost and effort of recruiting and re-training replacements if your employee quits.
Moreover, employers who create a culture of understanding around mental health absences are more likely to attract top talent to their business. High-fliers and millennials are becoming increasingly insistent that companies prioritise their wellbeing and allow them to maintain a strong work-life balance. Knowing that they will receive unprejudiced support in the event of burn-out makes your workplace highly attractive to prospective employees.
Allowing mental health days also provides employees with a psychological safety net. This encourages them to work harder from the start, knowing they can take a step back if they become overwhelmed.
It’s already happening
Considering the prevalence and seriousness of mental health issues, it is unsurprising that almost 1 in 5 workers admit to taking sick leave for stress reasons alone. Yet 93% of those people lied to their boss about the reason for their absence.
So while official disapproval does not curtail the number of mental health days taken, it does risk causing resentment from employees who feel their problems are not being taken seriously. Every good boss knows that employees who feel valued and appreciated work harder and stay longer. Cultivating an environment where employees can discuss all types of illness without stigma will ultimately lead to a happier, more positive and more productive workforce.
Having employees pull fake ‘sickies’ is an unfortunate fact of business life. So is genuine illness. Paranoia about the former does not excuse a repressive policy on the latter. Employers who show understanding and respect to suffering employees, particularly on mental health issues, will cultivate a loyal, hard-working workforce. In the survey quoted above, 70% of employees said they wished they could have had an open dialogue with their boss about their mental health issues. It is time their wish was granted.