Flexibility needed for health in workplace

Call someone and excuse yourself from an event, and there’s no issue when you sound like you’re battling the second coming of the Plague. 

“Yeah, you sounded pretty awful,” they’ll say when you talk about it later. Your absence won’t be a problem. 

But it’s a different story for people whose voices aren’t hoarse.

If you’re not visibly ill, non-attendance becomes suspect. Yet a serious set of illnesses won’t necessarily show in the voice. 

While our expectations for working while sick aren’t the healthiest, attitudes towards days off for people struggling with mental illness are worse. 

There’s a culture of soldiering on in Australia which is unhealthy. The desire not to let teammates down is a big driver for anyone denying themselves a much-needed day off to get better. For some, guilt can play a factor. Others don’t want to let go of their work, even for a day.

Allegations that Sydney Swans star Lance Franklin was sledged last weekend for taking time away from football in 2015 due to mental illness have brought this issue into focus. 

Greater Western Sydney Giants ruckman Shane Mumford allegedly said to Franklin, "Good to see you're not on holidays this year."

Mental health experts say the allegations show the need for greater education about mental health in sport.

If true, they also present a chance to discuss how Australians think about people – workmates in particular – who call in sick because of a mental health issue. 

The term ‘Mental Health Days’ has become a greater part of our vocabulary when talking about health. As important as they are, there isn’t enough respect for the need some people have for rest that alleviates depression and anxiety. 

It’s rest that, while not always addressing an emergency, will prevent work from exacerbating any mental illness someone may experience.

This rest has clear benefits, and it’s taken seriously by companies that are models of corporate success and employee wellbeing. Google and General Electric encourage their workers to take ‘Mental Health Days’. 

In the UK they’re common enough to have their own name, ‘duvet (doona) days’. 

WorkSafe Tasmania also takes this need seriously. It says that employees may need time off as a result of depression, anxiety or a related disorder. “It is important that organisations support employees as they transition back to work.”

If businesses create happy workplaces where people feel motivated to contribute, then surely they can trust their employees to take time off only when they need it. 

Businesses benefit from the wellbeing of workers. Flexibility also lets them attract higher quality candidates and leads to better relationship between employers and staff.

Obviously employees are more productive when rested and healthy. As employers demand greater flexibility from staff, often in ways that negatively impact mental health, it seems fair that employees ask businesses to respond in kind when it comes to ‘Mental Health Days’.

Mental illness is as real and as physical as flu or bronchitis. Those conditions don’t attract judgement when someone admits to taking time off to recover. So why do depression, anxiety and other conditions? 

Businesses large and small need to make it clear to their employees that their mental health is a priority.

A ‘Mental Health Day’ here or there will benefit both in the long-term.

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