Research Therapies — 21 June 2017

Mental health issues are one of the most common forms of illness in Australia with 3 million of us currently living with anxiety or depression alone. But it’s not just our personal lives that are affected by mental health. It’s our work and careers, too. 

A recent report conducted by Beyond Blue showed that one in every five Australians took time off in the last 12 months due to mental health issues.  

Taking a mental health day is sometimes the only sane thing to do. Photo: Stocksy

Taking a mental health day is sometimes the only sane thing to do. Photo: Stocksy

Similarly, a Safe Work Australia report showed that mental health compensation claims are fast becoming one of the most costly problems in the Australian workplace. 

However, despite these stats, mental health issues in the workplace are often overlooked, with employers focusing more on physical health. Mental health remains a taboo. Therefore, when it comes to calling in sick, people are unlikely to disclose the true purpose for their absence.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a greater willingness from organisations to address mental health issues in the workplace, but there’s still a huge amount of work that needs to be done,” says Nicholas Vayenas, director at Liquid HR.

 Vayenas notes that, generally, mental health HR policies still seem to be reserved for large institutions such as universities, government departments and progressive corporates. For companies outside of this, he says that there’s still a mindset that segregates physical and mental illness. 
According to the Beyond Blue research, working in a mentally unhealthy or unsupportive organisation exacerbates avoidance behaviours for those with mental health issues.  

These employees are less likely to seek help from their direct manager or human resources.  They’re also less likely to disclose an experience of depression or anxiety, particularly in situations of career progression.

The findings of the report show that these employees’ concerns may be justified.

When interviewed, one in every three employees said that, when it came to specific work situations, they would have reservations about working with someone experiencing depression or anxiety, particularly if it was their line manager.

The same employees believed that someone experiencing depression would be less able to perform their job adequately.

“Mental health can still be perceived as a taboo subject, and this is reflected in how most organisations deal with it by outsourcing it to employee assistance program (EAP) providers,” says Vayenas.

“These providers operate in the background, largely unchallenged and left to their own devices. Of course, they’re critical, but there’s still a commitment from organisations to educate employees and address the issue from within.”

Vayenas hopes that this mindset will change. However, in the meantime, how do employees navigate sick days versus mental health days?

Marny Lishman is a health and wellbeing psychologist. She says that it can be difficult for employees to know the best way to approach this issue.

“In a perfect world, confessing to taking a mental health day would be great as, if everyone was open and honest about it, workplaces would acknowledge the need for them and it would become normalised,” she says.

“In reality if workplaces don’t have the appropriate mindset about this yet, admitting to taking a mental health day could backfire for an employee.

“Mental health days are necessary because when we’re not mentally healthy it affects how we function, just the same as when we’re physically unwell.”

Lishman says a mental health sick day gives us time to source the best treatment to heal ourselves, whether this is a rest at home or a visit to a health professional.   

She says that, in this instance, employees may be better to just take a sick day.  

This will alleviate any fears about being judged or talked about. It will also make them feel more confident that their mental health won’t come into discussion in terms of productivity or promotions.

For those employees who want to be transparent about their mental health, Lishman suggests approaching your line manager.

“A good manager will respond in an appropriate and supportive manner, but if you don’t get the correct response, then go above them or to the HR department in your organisation,” she says.

“Even people high up in organisations experience mental health issues, so it’s in everyone’s interest to have a workplace culture that’s comfortable in talking about this.”

As a final note, Lishman says that you don’t want to have to hide something about yourself all the time in your workplace.

“We often spend more time at work than anywhere else, and not being yourself is not sustainable and doesn’t contribute to a healthy and happy workplace.”

What are the signs that signal we need a mental health day?

“There are many signs, but the key ones relate to your performance at work, your ability to concentrate and your level of tiredness” says Lishman. “Feeling irritable with colleagues and experiencing symptoms of anxiety are also things to be aware of.”

This piece was first seen on the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ 20 June 2017.

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