Can workers take a ‘mental health sick day’?

Sad Woman Sitting On Bed At Home
Britons are entitled to a mental health sick day just as much as if they were physically unwell. (Getty Images)

Even at the best of times, the stress of modern life can feel all consuming.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, experts have warned the UK’s extreme lockdown could have a “profound” and “pervasive” impact on mental health.

Before the virus disrupted our lives, nearly one in five (19.7%) Britons showed signs of depression or anxiety in 2014, up 1.5% from the year before.

While the mantra may be “keep calm and carry on”, taking some downtime to dance, bake or paint can boost our mental health.

Calling in sick to focus on your emotional wellbeing may sound like it wouldn’t fly, but taking a mental health sick day is no legally different from having some time off for a cold.

Read more: Why talking is so important for our mental health

“People with mental health problems can and do make a valuable contribution to the workplace, but despite this, around 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems fall out of work every year,” Emma Mamo from Mind told Yahoo UK.

“A lack of support and understanding means too often staff are not able to reach their potential and progress.

“Employers should treat mental health the same way they would with a physical health problem, which means both permitting people to take sick days if they are experiencing poor mental health and actively fostering a culture of openness.”

Stress and other mental-health problems are the second biggest cause of work absence, accounting for 70% of lost working days every year.

Employers are legally required to protect the health and safety of their staff, including their mental wellbeing if it affects their day to day life.

Work in itself can be a trigger for low moods, for example if you clash with colleagues or have stressful deadlines.

Mind recommends employers support their staff by encouraging conversations about mental health.

“Stigma is still a big problem in the workplace, with some employees feeling unable to talk about their wellbeing, mental health or workplace issues,” said Mamo.

“Employers should strive to create mentally healthy workplaces for all their employees.”

The charity urges staff to take their full lunch break and use up all their annual leave.

Something as simple as lunchtime walking clubs can also help colleagues get to know each other, resolving conflicts, it adds.

Businesswomen having discussion in conference room
Staff should let their boss know if they are struggling. (Getty Images)

How to talk to your employer about your mental health

Mind recommends senior staff regularly check in with workers to gauge how they may be coping.

“If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue,” a charity spokesperson told Yahoo UK.

“It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, you could meet them one to one to discuss what’s going on.”

While you may feel uncomfortable, psychologist Sarah Rozenthuler said the conversation should be face to face.

Read more: The pursuit of happiness may cause depression

“You might email your boss in advance to say you'd like a few minutes to discuss an important matter in private”, she told The Telegraph.

“Be unemotional and factual; don't play the ‘poor me’ card.”

Try and pick a time when your boss does not seem preoccupied and plan what to do if they appear distracted during the conversation.

“You might say, ‘I can see now isn't the ideal time to discuss this, can we agree to talk later?’,” said Rozenthuler.

The initial conversation usually does not require human resources (HR) being present, which can make it feel quite “formal”.

“If you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting, [that] might be a sensible next step,” said Mamo.

If the issue continues to be unresolved, contact the the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) or Mind’s legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Read more: ‘Flexible’ working may cause burn out: here’s how to stay stress free

Those who are supported by their boss may be referred to occupational health.

Medics will assess whether you are fit to do the job and how your employer can support you.

They may recommend your boss changes your working hours, allows you to work from home or re-allocates tasks you find difficult.

Some people feel discriminated against at work because of their mental health, for example if they miss out on a promotion they deserve or are made redundant over a colleague.

In England and Wales, the Equality Act 2010 gives workers the right to challenge this discrimination, however, they usually have to show their mental-health issue is a “disability”. A note from a doctor may help here.

To qualify for the protection of the Equality Act, most workers have to tell their employer about their mental health.