Should you include mental health days in your leave policy?

HR leaders are now expected to include mental health considerations in the organisational leave policy and procedures

Workplaces are dynamic in nature and constantly evolving, and with the rise of mental health awareness it is imperative that the policies and values that govern organisations evolve as well, writes Purnima Nandy

One of the biggest changes in workplaces today is the open conversations that employees are having about the importance and impact of mental health and wellness on their work and lives. Gone are the days where employees were afraid to share their mental health issues and needs, lest they lose their jobs or their performance and the future at the organisation is impacted. Due to this change, HR leaders are now expected to include mental health considerations in the organisational leave policy and procedures.

There have been many debates on whether mental health leave policies should be included into a formal organisational leave policy. One of the major questions raised is around the process of gauging the authenticity of mental leave requests and how can an objective performance review process be installed taking into account an employee who needs mental health leave for a sustained period.

The opposing point of view is that in a world where mental health issues and its impact has become a confronting reality, it is not possible to expect people to not bring their mental health worries to the workplace. Studies and organisations are making us aware of the range of mental health disorders from anxiety to depression and suicide tendencies that are crippling people today and how it can impact not only their productivity and wellbeing but also the wellbeing of others they are associated with like their co-workers and families.

“Gone are the days where employees were afraid to share their mental health issues and needs”

Despite these questions and viewpoints the requirement for a mental health leave policy cannot be dismissed by HR leaders today due to a number of reasons:

  • Company culture is now defined and shaped by the organisation’s ability to protect its employees and provide a mentally safe place to work.
  • Studies have shown that mental burnouts are an issue amongst employees from younger ages now and these burnouts are directly related to mental stress, anxiety and inability to relax.
  • Wellness programs and a mental health policy have become a matter of competitive edge for recruitment, engagement and retention strategies in organisations.
  • Employees are more educated and aware of the importance of mental health and are not willing to sacrifice that for their careers or job security; especially Gen Z who are looking out for a holistic career and life.
  • Studies like the Happiness Index by the Happiness Institute are proving time and again that productivity and employee longevity is directly related to a happy workplace.

5 steps to bringing mental health into policy
The big question then is, how can HR leaders include mental health aspects into organisational policies? Here are five of the best industry practices on including mental health aspects into the workplace by HR leaders.

  1. Allow open conversations. The best way to encourage honesty about mental health days is to encourage open conversations about it. Leaders should be able to create an environment where an employee can be honest about taking a mental health day without the fear of judgment or suspicion. For example, if your team member is feeling overwhelmed and unable to make business decisions he/she should be able to walk up to you and share their situation rather than faking a headache to be excused.

“It is HR’s responsibility to create a workplace that is inclusive and happy in a very real way”

  1. Including mental health days as a part of sick leave. Many organisations across the globe today include mental health days as a part of their sick leave days to enable employees to take a day or two off when feeling overwhelmed or anxious. This prevents a major breakdown and also saves unproductive manhours at the office. Forcing an employee to make a client presentation or a major decision when he/she is clearly not thinking clearly or feeling stable can only lead to bigger calamities.
  1. Wellness programs. It is not just sufficient to take a mental health day when feeling low but imperative that an employee has several avenues at the workplace to take care of his/her mental health and wellness. Given that people spend over 60 per cent of their time at the workplace, wellness programs and workshops such as awareness on anxiety and depression, corporate counselling services, yoga or mindfulness classes and healthy living and eating seminars are being made available at the workplace. Such facilities not only improves employee-organisation relationship but creates a positive work culture where employees are looking forward to giving their 100 per cent to their work.
  1. R U OK days. A major community event that happens annually in Australia is the R U OK Day. On this day people ask each other “R U OK?”. This simple initiative opens up bigger conversations leading to people feeling safe and not lonely in sharing their situations. This also acts as an awareness and inclusive initiative and breaks silos and judgments on certain behaviors.
  1. Leaders first. Stories shared by leaders and CEOs on their journey with mental health issues is a huge motivator for employees to fight with their personal challenges. Feeling that they are in an environment that not only recognizes their situation but understands it as well can be a massive leap towards healing. Having a mental health awareness day where leaders speak to their teams about this issue and how they can take care of themselves and be forthright about how they are feeling and most importantly that the organisation is looking out for them is a winner of a strategy towards this issue.

In order to have a healthy and growing organisation, it is important to have a healthy and winning team working together for it. It is HR’s responsibility to create a workplace that is inclusive and happy in a very real way.

Image source: iStock