While mental health is gaining greater understanding, there still seems to be some misunderstanding concerning what a mental health day should look like or if it qualifies under the heading of “calling out sick.”
I believe any sickness counts if you’re calling out to tend to it, whether that be physical, mental, emotional, or some combination. Regardless if it is the common cold, a flu, a bout of anxiety, or dark depression, something inside you is sick and needs attention in order for you to feel better and return to other duties, such as work or school.
Prioritizing our health is paramount, yet it feels like our culture still doesn’t understand just how or why this is. Let me walk you through one example. This is intended not to blame “the culture” but to share some food for thought and better educate those who may not understand what’s needed on a mental health day. I hope this also validates you if you’ve ever felt guilty about calling out due to anxiety, depression, stress, grief, etc.
First, the term “mental health day” is itself ambiguous. I feel a lot of people use it to refer to feeling drained, tired, or stressed, while others use it to apply to anxiety or depression. I believe mental health includes all of these definitions: it could include recharge time or time being kind to yourself and allowing some breathing room to work through anxiety and depression. A mental health day is nothing to trifle with. Just as calling out sick could mean you have a mild cold or a nasty flu, a mental health day is not always just about feeling drained. It can range from fatigue to, in the case of depression, life-or-death circumstances.
Second, our employers don’t yet seem to understand a mental health day functions differently than a day where our bodies have contracted a virus. If you have the sniffles, a fever, or feel physically drained, you should stay home, drink fluids, take medication, and rest. If, however, you are calling out due to anxiety or depression, confining yourself to the house and bed rest all day could be damaging. I’ve had to call out depressed or anxious multiple times, and can attest that a day alone with my thoughts can be more taxing than getting out of the house and back into my body and out of my head space.
Having said that, what’s needed on a mental health day? Sometimes rest is required, but just as important are doing an activity you love, coming up with a mental health action plan, or getting out with friends. However, you then fall into a conundrum. Do you go out with friends to tend your mental health, only to have your employer “catch you” and face the consequences? Or do you stay at home alone with your depression and face *those* consequences?
In our society, going out with friends or to do a fun activity after calling out sick can create serious consequences if your employer finds out. This needs to change if we want to properly tend our mental health (which often requires us to leave our home, get out of our head a little, and be with close friends). Calling out sick and going to a party might be entirely appropriate if you called out due to crippling anxiety and needed to refocus on the good in life, clear your head and spirits with friends, and return to work refreshed and ready to tackle the tasks in front of you.
Does this make it harder for employers to know who’s abusing the system and who isn’t? Of course! And suspecting someone is abusing the system and not being able to catch or prove it can be downright frustrating. At the same time, we may need to accept that we can’t peer into others’ lives and know what they are facing day to day (or what they need). When we jump to conclusions without at least asking our employees what was going on and if they need help, we create an atmosphere where people are afraid to take the time they need to tend their mental health concerns.
What can you do? If you’re an employer, understand you can’t see everything going on in your employees’ lives and that you don’t have control over that. If call-outs become excessive or you feel uncertain as to whether the system is being abused, pull the employee aside and ask questions to make sure they are all right and have what they need. You may be surprised by the answers. You must also respect if they choose not to disclose much, as mental and physical health issues can be very private. As an employee, try, when possible, to keep your employer and the rest of your team in the loop. You don’t need to go into detail, but understand others don’t know your story, and help them understand. If you can’t do that due to the nature of the concern, try to give your team and your schedulers as much heads-up as possible so your shifts can be covered while you are away. If you can, let them know as soon as possible when you can return to work. Most of all, know you aren’t alone, that you know your body and mind best, and that your health—no matter what an employer or culture says—is the ultimate priority. Life is about more than survival—it’s about taking care of yourself and those around you, and that starts with learning to listen to and tend your own needs.