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‘It should be the same as other absence’: What to do if you need to step back from work for your mental health

After Olympian Simone Biles withdrew to ‘focus on her mental health’, Kate Ng speaks to employers and HR managers about how workers can broach the subject of taking time off for their wellbeing

Wednesday 28 July 2021 14:34
<p>APTOPIX Tokyo Olympics Artistic Gymnastics</p>

APTOPIX Tokyo Olympics Artistic Gymnastics

When Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo Olympic all-round competition on Tuesday, citing mental health concerns, it sparked a conversation about taking time away from work to focus on one’s mental, rather than physical, wellbeing.

USA Gymnastics announced that Biles, a four-time gold medalist, had stepped back following a medical evaluation to “focus on her mental health”. Her decision, alongside tennis star Naomi Osaka’s during the French Open, has highlighted the importance of taking days off during times of high pressure if it is impacting your mental health.

One report showed that 51 per cent of UK workers who reported poor mental health at work was due to pressure. Of the 3,614 people surveyed, 41 per cent said they experienced mental health symptoms caused or worsened by work last year.

Mental health and wellbeing has become a top priority for employees when it comes to their workplace satisfaction. According to market research by recruitment group Search, 93 per cent of almost 5,000 people surveyed listed wellbeing ahead of any other workplace benefit.

The respondents said wellbeing could cover anything from regular check-ins from management to mental health days or awareness courses.

Some employers are sitting up and taking notice of the importance of prioritising their workforce’s mental health. In the UK, 30 leading organisations, including Barclays, Royal Mail and Unilever, signed the Mental Health Work Commitment, which recognises the importance of promoting wellbeing and good mental health in the workplace.

[Employers should let] your employees know that it’s okay to talk about mental illness and it’s okay to phone in to notify of an absence due to mental illness

But broaching the subject of mental health remains difficult for employees, with more than a third of workers feeling that HR departments (39 per cent) and CEOs and boards (37 per cent) are not considerate of employee mental wellbeing.

So how do you go about doing it?

How do you ask for time off for your mental health?

Helen Jamieson, founder of Jaluch HR, said if someone requires a day off to take care of their mental health, they should be able to follow their company’s normal absence reporting process.

“This happens all the time in businesses and isn’t anything new other than perhaps people being a little more willing to cite ‘stress’ rather then pretending it’s ‘stomach upset’, or to cite ‘depression’ rather than ‘migraine’, as we so often used to see,” she told The Independent.

“No processes or procedures need to change. The only step change, as an employer, is letting your employees know that it’s okay to talk about mental illness and it’s okay to phone in to notify of an absence due to mental illness.

“This of course comes back to a culture of trust and respect. In Canada, if someone phones in sick, you can’t actually ask them to say why they are sick, “ she added. “Perhaps simply not asking why might resolve a lot of concerns in the UK too.”

Ben and Lou Austin, who run a digital marketing agency, introduced three new initiatives for mental health in their company to help empower their staff. These include “wellbeing days”, employing the services of a mental health coaching provider, and training for leaders on mental health awareness.

We need to be talking about mental health openly and that is the only way it’s going to change

Lou, the chief operating officer, told The Independent: “I’ve had mental health issues in the past so it was important for me to introduce new measures, as I wanted to be able to help out our staff.”

She spoke about the importance of staff being able to take a “wellbeing day” without having to answer any questions or explain themselves to the company.

“Flexibility is really important because everybody’s needs are different. Our whole company now works remotely, so staff can just call in and take a wellness day, and we don’t ask any questions.

“I don’t know if other companies are taking the same approach, but they need to be. Sometimes you don’t want to talk about it or bring attention to having mental health issues because you’re worried about how it would be perceived.

“if I was an employee elsewhere, it would be something I would recommend bringing in. I just think we need to be talking about mental health openly and that is the only way it’s going to change,” she added.

Leyla Okhai, CEO of Diverse Minds, which supports organisations to invest in staff wellbeing agreed that it is employers who should be taking action in this area, not the other way around.

“The question for employers should be what should I be doing all year round to support my team’s mental health? Also, what could I do more of when there could potentially be specific points during the year where my team and staff could be feeling more vulnerable?” she told The Independent.

The question for employers should be what should I be doing all year round to support my team’s mental health?

Okhai recommends that employers take simple steps such as implement a mental health day she calls a “duvet day”. “A day that employees can take when they do not feel their mental best, often at short notice without having to divulge personal information,” she said.

“Putting this in place allows staff to be more open and honest, increasing trust with their employer.”

Other steps employers can take is to check-in on their staff during team meetings. “By talking about feelings openly, this creates a culture where people can be honest and sincere. In addition, other team members can provide appropriate ideas and results in better camaraderie and team support.”

Lastly, employers should provide training for line managers to have conversations about mental wellbeing, which can be tricky.

Okhai said: “Knowing how to have the conversation and spot the signs [of mental health issues], but not diagnose, can be crucial to encourage people to seek support and professional help in time.

“One of the most effective tools for managing mental ill-health (post-diagnosis) in the workplace, is a wellness recovery tool and action plan, or WRAP for short.”

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

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