Should HR encourage staff to take sick days for mental health? We ask the experts

A recent response from a CEO to a worker who was taking leave for mental health reasons has recently gone viral.

The story concerns an email from a worker where she told her team she was taking time off work for mental health reasons. Her CEO responded to this email thanking her for sending the message as it provided a reminder that taking time for mental health is important.


Mental health issues on the rise

A recent survey conducted by PwC found that 34% of employees in the UK are facing health and well-being problems. Two in five of those surveyed said they had taken time off because of mental health issues.

The extent to which a job can affect personal wellbeing cannot be understated. A company cannot remain productive and profitable if their employees are mentally exhausted. With the cost of replacing staff lost due to mental health conditions reported to be £2.4bn per year in the UK alone, employers are taking steps to help their employees combat mental illness and building a culture of acceptance and support within the workplace.

We spoke to some HR experts for their advice on managing mental illness at work:


Pam Rogerson, HR Director for the ELAS Group, says:

“Gone are the days when HR was accused of not being sympathetic to mental illness as it affects so many of us at one time or another during our working lives. HR departments are more in tune than they are given credit for when it comes to mental health. Many have employee assistance programmes to specifically help with situations that can arise from stress within the workplace or factors in an employee’s personal life, encouraging counselling and support from experts where possible.


“If you are unable to work because of illness, whether that’s physical or mental, then the normal rules of sickness absence according to your organisation should kick in. People are more open about mental health in the workplace these days and this encourages others to feel more comfortable about telling the truth behind their reasons for absence, instead of merely masking it by claiming a headache or sickness bug as happened so often in the past.


“All employers should know that some forms of mental illness are a disability and, as an employee, you are heavily protected from any form of discrimination under the Disability Protection Act. Making your employer aware of any mental health conditions/concerns you have means that they can put support measures in place to help. Whether this is making arrangements for flexible working, arranging counselling or just having someone to talk to, support can be individually tailored in the way that is best for both you and the company. In this day and age, nobody should be embarrassed to call in sick due to mental health issues.”


Health Assured CEO and wellbeing expert David Price added:

“Although many employers want perfect attendance from their staff, taking time off when ill has positive benefits for staff and the business. 


“Having a culture which encourages staff to take time off when necessary, as the CEO did, will ensure employees feel they are not negatively viewed because they do this.


“When an employee is taking time off for mental health illness, employers should not ignore or forget about these staff and should keep in touch with employees throughout their absence.  Having reasonable contact will ensure the individual feels supported by the business during their illness and it will help prevent the employee feeling overwhelmed on their return.


“However, contact should not be repetitive or overly intrusive as this could have the opposite effect and make the employee feel as if they are being hounded to come back.  Getting the balance right is a difficult act but continuing communication is important to reinforce the company’s supportive culture.”


Absence management expert Adrian Lewis from Activ Absence said:

“Like any other invisible illness, just because it can’t be seen doesn’t mean it isn’t causing real pain, and sometimes a day off is the best way to recover from a short period of stress – but long term absence is rarely an effective solution.


“Employers should think about a long term approach.  By encouraging a more open attitude towards mental health in the workplace, employees are able to access support more easily – and that can prevent the need for long term sickness absence.  We encourage monitoring absence patterns using software alongside gentle, non-judgmental return to work interviews with line managers who have been trained to spot the signs of mental illness early.


“Once a mental illness, no matter how mild, is identified, have a plan to respond supportively.  Consider whether a supportive line manager with specific training can help, but look outside if necessary.  Consider a referral to occupational health or to counselling services.  Explore what is available free under the company’s group risk policy.  Often these ‘add on benefits’ are hidden and lie relatively unexplored by the Human Resources team.  You pay for these services, and they can make a very real difference.  Offering as much support at work as possible will help sufferers recover more quickly and crucially minimise the impact on both their absence from work and their suffering from what can be a soul-destroying illness.”


Author: Editorial Team

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