We Need To Chat About Using Sick Leave For Mental Health Days

We Need To Chat About Using Sick Leave For Mental Health Days
Contributor: Emma Ruben

Since the emergence of Covid-19, taking sick days at work has become increasingly necessary in order to stop the spread. In some cases, they are even encouraged. However, can the same be said about taking mental health days at work? 

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1 in 5 Australians reported they experienced a mental health or behavioural condition from 2017 to 2018. And 4.3 million Australians received mental health-related prescriptions from 2018 to 2019.  

In recent years, it has become significantly more important to talk about our mental health. We’re encouraged to not only ensure that we are okay but also to check up on our friends and family. Campaigns such as RU OK Day, How’s Your Head Today?, and the Inside My Mind are just a handful of initiatives designed to encourage folks to speak more openly about mental health experiences and the ways to combat them. 

What’s lacking from this narrative, however, is how mental health is spoken about in the workplace. If mental health impacts all aspects of our lives then how can we begin to introduce the topic more seamlessly at work? 

Why don’t we talk about it more?

As prevalent as these issues may be, the fact is that many of us still feel uncomfortable discussing the idea of taking a break to look after our mental health. Gwen, a tattoo artist, pins this down to feelings of shame. “I tend to feel very guilty not doing my job,” she told me when I sat down with her. 

When I asked her why she feels that way she explained that, “I think this is because we’re taught from a young age that to be successful we need to work hard and earn money.”

Therapist Emily Simonian agrees. She recently spoke with Thriveworks about the topic and explained that when we are unable to do our jobs, stress and guilt are usually quick to follow.

“Going to work every day ultimately equates to survival, mentally and physically,” she said.

But in the long run, it’s simply not worth forcing yourself to push through work when you’re feeling mentally drained. When I spoke to Psychologist Gemma Cribb from Equilibrium Psychology over email, she stressed that “it is better to take a day off and give yourself what you need than to struggle at work.

“Taking a little time off in the early stages can also help prevent the need to take more time off due to a worsening of your situation,” she said. 

Tackling mental health issues in difficult workplaces

It’s not only guilt that can stand in the way of taking a mental health day. Unsympathetic managers also exist as a significant speed bump. Cribb notes that it’s important to “think about your audience” and understand your managers at work before going into these conversations. 

“If your superior has demonstrated support for mental health issues, having a frank conversation where you tell [them] that you are struggling and would benefit from a mental health day, should be sufficient,” she said.

However, issues can arise when superiors and managers hold uncertain or even unsupportive views on mental health. In these cases, Cribb shared that you’re better off telling them “you will need time off for health reasons”.

It’s also worth pointing out here that you should never feel pressured to share any information you’re not comfortable speaking about. This is completely up to you.

For Gwen, being a tattoo artist means that she not only has a boss to report to but also her clients. When having to reschedule appointments, they don’t always react empathetically. 

“Sometimes clients can be really kind about it. [But] A lot of the time they can get quite upset or angry. And it’s fair because when I take a mental health day it can push their appointment [by] months…” she said. 

“Being a somewhat sole business owner, the responsibility and fault, in this sense, falls entirely on me.” 

When I asked her if there were any steps she takes to try and avoid disruption to her schedule, she explained that she tries to “plan in advance and take a few days off during the busier periods of the year”. 

Tips for bringing up mental health in the workplace

For those worried about introducing issues of mental health in the workplace, Cribb has a few tips. 

Firstly, she said to begin slowly and start early. Don’t wait until you aren’t coping to flag these issues with your boss. Instead, “try to flag your difficulties in the earlier stages,” she suggested. 

And when discussing these issues for the first time, “start with a ‘less is best’ approach until you build trust that your information will be treated with privacy and respect”. 

Next, choose the right time and place. Selecting a place that ensures your privacy is important. Cribb also recommends you make certain “that the person you are speaking with has the time and attention to give to this issue when you raise it”. 

Finally, think about the outcome you would like. Think about how you want the business to support you or what you need from them before beginning the conversation. 

Ultimately, discussing mental health issues at work brings us one step closer to breaking down the barriers of mental health as a whole. By welcoming these topics into professional spaces, we’re able to make these discussions more commonplace and they’ll become easier to have in the future. 

If you or someone you love is in need of support, help is available through services like Beyond Blue and Lifeline 13 11 14.


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