If you’ve had a job long enough, chances are you’ve taken a mental health day.
But did you have the nerve to tell your boss that you needed some time off to decompress after months of chasing deadlines or quotas?
Even these days, with high-profile celebrities talking openly about their battles with mental illness, this topic is still taboo in many workplaces.
Some people are trying to change that.
Like Madalyn Parker, a web developer in Ann Arbor, Mich., who shared in her out-of-office email reply that she was taking a couple days off to “focus on my mental health.”
Parker posted this on Twitter, along with the response of the chief executive officer of her company.
Rather than berating her for slacking off, the CEO thanked her for helping “cut through the stigma” of mental health.
Based on the comments stirred up by this viral post, not every workplace is this open about mental health.
But there’s good reason for companies to put as much effort into taking care of their employees’ mental health as they do in making sure workers show up for lunchtime yoga, quit smoking, or get screened for heart disease.
Companies’ mixed reactions
Some people use mental health days to unplug from the steady stream of work emails and high-pressure phone calls — a kind of mini vacation.
Others catch up on personal tasks that are causing worry or stress, such as taking in the car for repairs or cleaning out the garage.
And some workers may take a day off to visit a doctor or therapist specifically to address mental health needs.
Likewise, company attitudes about mental health days vary.
Some employers frown upon workers using sick days to destress or rebalance unless they have a note from a doctor or counselor.
Others have specific mental health policies that include time off for employees to take care of their “mental well-being.”
And some give employees a fixed amount of “paid time off” and let employees decide how best to use it.
This is the way it’s been for the past decade at CHG Healthcare Services, a healthcare staffing firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Everyone can do what they want, whether they’re sick, or have vacation, or just need a day to reflect and recover,” Nicole Thurman, director of talent management, told Healthline.
Thurman added the company is not concerned about employees abusing the system — such as by skipping work to go to a ball game or shopping.
“We manage on performance,” said Thurman. “At the end of the day, you have to have your numbers. But you’re an adult, so you have to take care of yourself.”
Companies get involved
Many companies go beyond just talking about the importance of mental health.
A 2017 survey by Willis Towers Watson showed that 88 percent of U.S. employers want to make behavioral health a top priority over the next three years.
With good reason.
In 2015, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that within the year prior, 1 in 5 American adults had a mental disorder.
The institute also reported that the United States spent $147 billion treating mental disorders in 2009. Add to this the lost earnings and disability payments due to mental illness and the number reaches $467 billion.
Like other chronic illnesses, mental disorders can impact a company through absenteeism, reduced productivity, and higher healthcare costs.
A report by the National Business Group on Health estimated that mental illness and substance abuse disorders cost U.S. employers $17 billion each year, plus 217 million days of lost work productivity.
Mental illness has many causes, both environmental and genetic.
Emma Seppälä, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of “The Happiness Track,” along with her colleagues, found that the workplace can have a big impact, too.
Using data from the General Social Survey of 2016, they found that almost 50 percent of people reported they were “often or always exhausted” due to work — a 32 percent increase from two decades ago.
This stress can contribute to workplace accidents, as well as health problems such as cardiovascular disease and increased risk of death.
A recent study in the European Heart Journal found that people who worked 55 or more hours per week had an increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat.
Seppälä said that just being part of a company’s hierarchy can affect your health — with one study showing a higher risk of cardiovascular disease for workers on the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder.
Other research has found that bosses’ behavior may also increase the risk of heart disease in employees.
“Stress-producing bosses are literally bad for the heart,” said Seppälä.
Beyond mental health days
A mental health day can be reinvigorating — especially if it means a day away from your overbearing boss — but it may not address other underlying issues.
Which is why CHG Healthcare Services offers onsite counseling services for employees.
This grew out of the company’s health clinic, which was set up in 2012 and is managed by Marathon Health, to provide care for employees’ physical health, like dealing with colds, headaches, or suspicious-looking moles.
The company, though, found that about a third of the visits were for mental health issues.
“We quickly learned that [mental health] is a bigger issue in our population than what we originally thought or knew,” said Thurman.
As a result, the company hired a male and female counselor, who now have around 75 visits with employees each month.
The biggest issue that the counselors deal with is anxiety, but employees also show up for help with depression, PTSD, ADHD, and other mental health problems.
So far, many employees have been receptive.
“I think people give up on counseling services if they don’t connect or they’re not getting value out of it pretty fast,” said Thurman. “But it’s working because people are coming back.”
Part of the success of the program is that, even with the counselors seeing employees in the workplace, confidentiality is a top priority.
“We’ve done some things to help people feel more comfortable, because there’s a stigma attached to [mental health issues],” said Thurman. “We want to make people feel like they’re not being watched.”
Not every workplace, though, has counselors nearby or offers mental health days for employees.
But there are things that every employee can do to reduce work-related stress.
In a post on Psychology Today, Seppälä offered some tips for workers.
One is to cut back on the coffee that gets you through the workday. Seppälä recommends that you replace the stimulation with more calming activities, such as yoga, relaxing breathing exercises, or taking a break from technology.
She also suggested that people detach from work when they’re not at work. This is sometimes easier said than done, but it could be as simple as exercising, playing basketball, or learning to cook something new.
Or forest bathing — yes, that’s really a thing. It has nothing to do with bathing, but involves spending quality time in nature.
Just leave the work phone at home.