Opinion: mental health is just as valid a reason for a sick day as the flu

Updated on 27 November 2019 | 0 Comments

Too many people pretend they have a sniffle to justify a day off sick when they are struggling mentally.

Two in five workers would 'pull a sickie' if they felt they needed a day off, according to a recent Comres study carried out for the BBC

While that might not be the most surprising figure, it's interesting to note that one of the most common reasons cited for doing so was 'mental health conditions'.

A study by ITV a while back told a similar story, with almost half admitting that they were actually too tired to face a day at work.

While some of that tiredness may be self-inflicted, for plenty of others it will be a result of poor mental health.

Exhaustion is a common result of mental health worries.

That may be because your actual mental health issue is draining you of energy, but equally, it may just be keeping up the mask of pretending everything is fine is actually taking it out of you.

Why you should be open about your mental health

I know what it's like

However, rather than tell our bosses that our mental health is poor and we need a break, just as we might if we had a stomach bug or a cold, plenty of people lie and instead blame our absence on what seems to be a more palatable reason.

I’ve done it, putting on a bit of a sniffle when phoning in sick because my head is a mess and I wouldn’t actually be any use to anyone.

I’ve tried to work through it too, hoping that staring at a screen all day will somehow put the anxiety and stress to the back of my mind, if not clear it altogether.

Spoiler ‒ it didn’t.

In fact, at its worst, I ended up developing a stress-related condition that meant taking weeks off work.

My poor mental health ended up damaging my physical health too, and all because I didn’t feel able to discuss the situation properly with my employers.

How to get therapy on a low income

What will they think of me?

There are all sorts of different reasons why people are more reticent to admit that they need time off due to their mental health.

I know that in my case, I was concerned about the perception. In my mind, rightly or wrongly, I worried that I would be looked at in a different way if I said that I needed time off to get my mind into a healthier place.

If I tell my boss that I have a cold, they know that I will get over it and be back at work, as usual, in a few days.

But if I tell them that I’m struggling mentally and need a day or two off to get right, then will they ever believe I’m back and healthy? Or will they view me as mentally weak, unable to deal with my responsibilities? And will that hurt my chances of future promotions or pay rises? 

In my mind, admitting my mental health was poor was akin to classing myself as ‘flaky’ in my employer’s eyes.

A study by anxiety treatment firm Smart TMS earlier this year found that almost a third of women (29%) don’t feel they can open up about their mental health worries to colleagues because of a fear of judgment or loss of reputation.

I’m pretty confident there are a similar number of many men in the same boat.

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Health is health, whether mental or physical

It doesn’t have to be like this though.

There was a story that went viral a couple of years ago, about a woman in America called Madelyn Parker.

A software developer, she emailed her team to let them know that she was going to be taking a few days off to focus on her mental health, with the aim of returning to work the next week, fully refreshed.

The reason the story gained such traction though was the response of her chief executive, Ben Congleton, who described her as an “example” to the rest of the team, emphasising that sick days are there for mental as well as physical health, adding that her message was helping to “cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work”.

Now it’s easy to roll your eyes a little at that last part, I admit, but the point is a good one. 

Using a sick day to recharge your batteries, whether that’s seeing a professional about your mental health worries or simply getting in some exercise, is just as valid as using it to spend the day in bed if you’ve got a cold.

But it’s up to all of us to help redress that balance.

That means bosses need to take a more open approach to discussing mental health ‒ and the support available ‒ with their staff, while workers need to stop downgrading mental health in their own minds as a justifiable reason to call in sick.



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