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Should Your Organization Provide Mental Health Days?



Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash


With employee stress still at a record-high level post-pandemic, one topic that continues to trend is the idea of mental health days, or PTO days employees can take to prioritize rest and self-care. But while this new benefit has gained in popularity recently and has been adopted at companies like Nike, LinkedIn, SAP, and Netflix, among others, employers should think carefully before jumping on the bandwagon. 


Why are mental health days important?

A recent survey found the majority of employees feel work is only growing more intense and demanding, and that they feel exhausted at the end of the day, something that should be a huge red flag for organizations. Our bodies and minds aren’t meant to be constantly pushed to the limit at the expense of well-being. Any elite athlete will tell you that the rest and recovery period of their training is just as important as the race or competition, yet in the workplace we continue to make the mistake of equating more hours worked to productivity. 

Mental health days have myriad benefits, including reducing feelings of burnout, improving morale, increasing productivity, reducing presenteeism and long-term absenteeism, and improving resiliency, particularly when it comes to preventing a mental health crisis.

They also offer a rare point of agreement across generations in the workplace, with 82% of Gen Z workers saying they want to be able to take mental health days, and Baby Boomers being most likely to feel that mental health days are “absolutely necessary.” 


This enthusiasm for mental health days tracks with my personal experience teaching a career development course to Gen Z college students, where the concern that employers will not respect their mental health comes up almost every semester.


So what’s the catch?

While the growing popularity of mental health days signals that companies recognize the need for change in how mental health is handled in the workplace, offering mental health days isn’t necessarily always the best solution.


First, mental health days tend to be reactionary as opposed to preventative.

Employees are more likely to take them only once their symptoms have begun to negatively impact their health and work. And once they’ve reached that point, it’s doubtful that a single day off will relieve these concerns.

Second, while mental health days can help to alleviate employee stress and burnout on an individual level, they don’t address the broader, systemic workplace factors that may be contributing to poor mental health in the first place – such as overwork, low social support, or toxic workplace cultures. Relying on mental health days as the be-all, end-all solution to stress and burnout is pointless if employees are stepping away only to return to the same environment that exacerbated or caused their mental health issues in the first place.


Ok then, what should my organization do?

If you’re considering implementing mental health days, I recommend first stepping back to consider the bigger picture of how your organization supports employee mental health and the purpose of introducing mental health days. To start, top leadership must be on board with creating a culture that supports and destigmatizes mental health issues. This starts with training managers – who are often on the front lines of employee well-being – to recognize the signs of acute stress and to support employees in utilizing the company’s well-being resources. 


It also includes giving workers some degree of autonomy and flexibility in terms of where, when, and how they get work done, re-examining health and well-being benefits with a focus on mental health, and listening to employee feedback on the company’s culture and mental health benefits – and using that feedback to take action.


Only when you’ve taken stock of all these things should you consider offering mental health days, otherwise they risk being more of a bandaid than a meaningful solution.


I’ve done all that; now how should I go about implementing mental health days?

For mental health days to be an effective tool in an organization’s overall employee well-being strategy, managers need training on how to support employees who want to take advantage of them.


Unlike traditional core benefits such as health insurance or flex spending accounts, a benefit like mental health days requires significant alignment and support from the direct manager. In order to set the manager and employee up for success, managers need to understand why mental health days are available, when they can and should be used, and how to support employees in taking them. 

Managers should see mental health days as a tool in their manager toolkit. If an employee is showing signs of burnout, managers can encourage them to look at the calendar and plan mental health days for when work might be slower – this way employees are more likely to take the day off instead of getting drawn back into work. If an employee’s issues are so acute they need to take a mental health day immediately, that’s a strong indicator that they need more support than just a single day off.


Managers should also be encouraged to check in with the employee after the mental health day. Saying something as simple as “I noticed you took a mental health day and wanted to see how you’re doing. What else can I do to support you?” demonstrates care and signals to the employee that they’re not being penalized for taking advantage of this benefit.


Encourage employees to truly disconnect and protect their rest time during mental health days, and set the expectation that no one should contact them during this out-of-office period. Just as with any kind of PTO, there should be a plan for how things get escalated if urgent action is needed so that the employee doesn’t need to deal with it during their time off. 


On a tactical level, I recommend organizations avoid paying out unused mental health days as they might vacation days, as this encourages underutilization. So unless payout is required by state law, framing mental health days as a “use it or lose it” benefit will motivate employees to take this time when needed.

Finally, the strongest message to employees is never what they hear leaders say, but what they see them do.

Encouraging senior leadership to take advantage of mental health days in a visible way, and even to share stories of how they used their day and the impact it had on them gives everyone else permission to do the same. And while permission may seem like an odd word to use for a benefit, I liken it to paternity leave, which men are more likely to take when they see leaders also doing so. In cases like these, modeling and storytelling are some of the most powerful – and underutilized – tools. 


The bottom line

Mental health days can have enormous benefits when implemented correctly as part of a broader mental health strategy. However, when used by companies as a universal solution for all mental health challenges, they’ll only perpetuate the cycle of burnout and absenteeism by ignoring the root causes of bigger mental health issues. 


Organizations that implement mental health days mainly for the optics of having a trendy new benefit are missing the point, and won’t reap the benefits of this new employee offering. However, those who are clear in their intention behind the benefit and have a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to supporting employee well-being will be rewarded with increased morale, productivity, and, most importantly, a healthier, happier workforce.


Interested in learning more about building human workplaces? Send me a note at Katherine@worksproutpartners.com.


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