#14: How to implement 'Mental Health Days’
A guide on what Mental Health Days are and how to make them work.
Work Daze is a newsletter helping people build better cultures at work. Join us for thought-provoking ideas and actionable resources for healthier and happier teams.
If you enjoy what you see here, please give it a like or share with a friend. Then sit back and wait for good karma to come your way.
The conversation around mental health has been gaining in attention and scope for a number of years now. From what it is, to how to cope with it, to how to talk about it. While the subject is increasingly entering mainstream cultural discourse and our social media feeds (oh the irony), it can still sometimes feel touchy or taboo. The personal nature of mental health can make it even trickier to address in the professional context of the workplace.
In our day jobs at Bethnal Green Ventures, we’ve always enjoyed a very supportive work culture (shout out to BGV). So when the uncertainties and anxieties of 2020 reared their ugly heads, our team began to think about how best to support each other’s mental health. One initiative that came out of this was ‘Mental Health Days’. While seemingly self-explanatory, Yumi, whose role at BGV is partly to help look after the team, soon found that there wasn’t much readily available or useful information on how best to implement them.
So for this month’s issue, Yumi is sharing her learnings on how to develop a Mental Health Days policy with the hope that her many hours of Googling and head-scratching can be put to good use by others too.
Milly & Yumi
Hold on a second, what even are Mental Health Days?
Mental Health Days can mean different things, but in the context of the workplace, it is usually a company’s way of showing explicit support for mental wellbeing, and clear permission to take time off if you need it. Think of your usual sick days, but with a specific emphasis on mental health. Mental Health Days try to communicate that whether you have experienced an anxiety attack or have broken a leg, it shouldn’t matter - both physical and mental health matter the same.
At this point, you might ask ‘If they matter equally, why make the distinction? Why not cover mental health under normal sick days?’ And it is a good question. Ideally, no one would need to explain that both matter. In reality, it seems that many people don't feel comfortable taking mental health leave under sick days, or if they do, it’s shrouded in secrecy under the all too familiar ‘I’m not feeling very well.’ For example, a recent survey from CharlieHR showed that 78% of the company’s employees came into work when their mental health was not up to it on at least one occasion. These results show up in other companies and signal that having sick days on their own does not solve the issue.
Learning 1. Context is key
Even as discussions around employee wellbeing are becoming more common, presenting a new mental health benefit without any context may be met with scepticism. Do people in your company discuss mental health with their managers? Have you done anything else to show that you care about your co-workers? How does your leadership respond when they hear that someone is not able to make it to work?
It helps to get the basics right first. At BGV, before we introduced Mental Health Days, we introduced Spill - a suite of mental health services for all employees (including the option for therapy), we organised daily virtual team meetings and tea breaks to have the ability to ‘see’ each other more while we work online. We also surveyed our team to understand how they’re doing and what others can do to help. When we introduced Mental Health Days, it seemed like a natural fit with our existing culture and a logical extension of the support we were already providing.
Learning 2. Trust your team
As the famous quote goes, ‘Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.’ So you need to trust people when they tell you that something is not right. How’s that as a basis for a new policy?
If you’re not going to trust others when they take a Mental Health Day, you might as well not introduce it in the first place. The worst outcome of this ‘benefit’ would be someone taking the time off only for their manager to presume they are skiving. If the employee ends up feeling like they were never really allowed to take that day off in the first place, that’s a quick way to damage the relationship once and for all.
Setting the expectation for trust, the wording in your offer is vital. Of the few policies that I did manage to find online, some seemed strict on what constitutes ‘sickness’ and what doesn’t. I felt like I would need to be on the verge of dying to qualify for mental health leave. Some guides recommended that employees spend time on self-care, ‘self-care’ meaning quietly lounging in their room trying to work out an actionable mental health plan with a pink bubble bath in the evening. There is no shortage of advice on how to do self-care, but I’d argue that a mental health policy should be the one place to abstain.
The implication of a highly prescriptive approach is that you don’t trust your employees to decide for themselves what constitutes ill health. You also don’t trust them to do what’s best for them. If that’s a real fear, then this might not be the right benefit for your company.
Learning 3. Be clear on the offer
Let’s get to the practicalities. Whether you are introducing this as an informal benefit or a policy, it helps to be clear on what you’re offering. A few questions that you might find helpful to think about are:
Going back to trust, whatever you do - do not ask or expect people to share potentially sensitive health information with you or the team. Beyond the fact that you could be putting the person in an uncomfortable position, you should also bear in mind that the usual data and discrimination laws apply.
Introducing mental health benefits won’t suddenly solve every issue. However, by starting the conversation about mental health and following up with tangible support actions, you will be one step closer to creating a work culture that values people’s lived experiences. And that in itself is a good reason to try it.
Thanks for reading! Let us know what you thought of this format by pressing one of the buttons below. You’ll be transported to a mysterious place on the internet as a gift.