It can be difficult to broach the topic of mental health with an employer, but it’s necessary if you need to take time off work to get back on your feet.
In the summer of 2017, web developer Madalyn Parker went viral after tweeting about the positive and encouraging response from her boss, Ben Congleton, when she explained she would be using a couple of sick days for mental health reasons.
While it was definitely a heartening story, it was unfortunate that such a response was rare enough to warrant all the attention. Indeed, many people responded to the story with their own tales of unsympathetic employers and lecturers who didn’t respect the validity of mental illness.
I'll never forget this email I sent to one of my law professors and her reply. ? pic.twitter.com/d4le40BuSZ
— Melissa Jean (@melissajean07) July 10, 2017
Research conducted by SeeChange in 2012 found that in Ireland, 57pc of those surveyed believe that being open about a mental health problem at work would “have a negative impact on job and career prospects”. Furthermore, 47pc felt that openness about mental illness would have a negative effect on their relationships with colleagues.
This is a grim statistic, and baffling when considering that evidence from WHO suggests that nearly half the global population will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives, and affected in a way that impacts relationships, self-esteem and the ability to function daily. As of 2017, WHO estimated that 4.4pc of the global population suffer from a depressive disorder, and 3.6pc from an anxiety disorder.
Yet still there are many who fail to acknowledge the legitimacy of mental illness. It’s no wonder then that many people would find the idea of disclosing mental illness or taking a sick day for mental health reasons daunting.
If you feel like you cannot come to work or will not perform to the best of your ability due to mental illness, you may want to take a sick day. If you’re worried about the process, or unsure what you’re entitled to, this advice will hopefully demystify the process.
Treat it like any other sick day
One of the things that can hold people back from taking time off to care for their mental health is the perception that stress, feeling run down, sadness or anxiety aren’t good enough reasons to take time off.
It’s best to quickly dismiss that idea. You shouldn’t think of yourself talking a ‘mental health day’, as creating a dichotomy between physical and mental illness in this respect can be exactly what fuels this sense that you ‘don’t deserve’ the time off. Instead, think of it as taking time off because you’re ill, and treat it with the level of respect you would a physical illness.
Know your rights
If you’re particularly worried that disclosing mental illness will negatively impact your career prospects or relationships in the workplace, it can be good to equip yourself with knowledge about exactly what you are entitled to.
The Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015 outlaw discrimination in employment and employment-related areas. The legislation covers discrimination on nine grounds, and mental illness is classed under ‘disability’, which includes “people with physical, intellectual, learning, cognitive or emotional disabilities, and a range of medical conditions”.
You are not required to disclose disability to an employer, though it is worth noting that it’s easier to access the available accommodations if you loop your employer into the situation, not to mention that it could go a long way towards quelling any shame and discomfort you may harbour about your mental illness.
The application of this legislation to mental health is broad, and covers a range of illnesses, including:
- depression and reactive depression
- severe generalised anxiety disorder
- agoraphobia and claustrophobia
- stress, including work-related stress
This list is by no means exhaustive. According to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, there is “no minimum threshold regarding severity of disability or duration of disability in order to be included under the Act”, and the disability does not have to have been acquired at work to be covered by legislation.
The law entitles you to ‘reasonable accommodation’ in the workplace, meaning practical changes that can enable you to work on an equal basis with your peers. In the case of mental health, this can include changing your hours, allowing you to work from home, giving you time off for medical appointments, or allowing flexible working time and/or time off.
There is a provision that protects employers from providing measures that would be a ‘disproportionate burden’ but, in most cases, the aforementioned measures are not only possible, but are now part of typical modern workplace policy for all employees.
In reality, you (hopefully) won’t have to throw the book at your employer to get an accommodation should you need it, but it can be reassuring to know that these protections are in place.
Take advantage of workplace accommodations
For many reasons, you may be hesitant to take time off. If your sick days are unpaid and you are suffering from financial pressures, the idea of missing work could possibly further your stress. You may just simply want to try to maintain a degree of normality and routine.
Whatever the case, it can be a good idea to look into the accommodations available to you and try them out. If you need to go to therapy or doctors’ appointments, you can tailor them around your working day.
If you’re not feeling up to being in the office on a particular day, working from home can be restorative in itself while still allowing you to get stuff done.
This is not to say that you should just push through whatever you’re feeling at all costs – that exact approach could lead to full-blown burnout, which is not what you or your employer wants.
You’ll know yourself what you need on a given day, so, any time your mental illness is impeding you, it’s advisable to do a sort of self-inventory to determine what kind of measures you need to take to feel better.
Make sure you’re not backsliding into avoidance
It’s important to consider things like taking mental health days or taking advantages of other workplace accommodations as aspects of a larger strategy to tackle your issues, not as a solution in itself.
These kinds of measures will only really serve as a temporary stopgap if they aren’t supplemented with counselling or consulting with a GP.
Depression and anxiety, for example, can create a negative feedback loop if left unchecked, whereby you take time off only to find the idea of returning after an absence even more harrowing. Ensuring you have a care strategy in place can help provide some structure and avoid a backslide into avoidant behaviour, which could just make you feel worse.
Generally, it’s best to attempt to maintain as much of a connection with your community – be it friends, family or co-workers – when you’re feeling bad, so, ideally, try to preserve as much of your regular routine as possible.
Have an open dialogue
If you’re at the point where your mental health is making it difficult to function, it’s probably best that you begin to open up a dialogue with your employer about what’s going on.
You don’t necessarily need to go into details you’re uncomfortable sharing, but it can be useful for your employers to have context should you need to ask for a more extended leave of absence in the future.
If you’re worried about confidentiality, rest assured that the information you disclose about your health to an employer is sensitive and, therefore, your employer will have a responsibility to take extreme care in how any information is stored, accessed and used.
You can ease yourself into the conversation by first sending an email to your manager stating that you’d like to have a discussion. You can give a small summary of your concerns and then elaborate further in person.
You could also ask your doctor or psychologist to write a note outlining your condition. You may need a form of certification from a physician about your fitness to work if you are requesting extended leave.
In all likelihood, your employer will be sympathetic and will first and foremost want you to get better. Try to remind yourself of that if you are worrying about the outcome of the conversation.
The importance of looking after your mental health in whatever way you need to cannot be overstated. Asking for help when you need it, in whatever form you need it, is not a sign of weakness.