A stir­ring de­fense of men­tal health days at the of­fice

The Washington Post Sunday - - TAKING STOCK - BY JENA MCGRE­GOR jena.mcgre­gor@wash­post.com

This week, an ut­terly hu­man re­sponse from a chief ex­ec­u­tive to his em­ployee who was tak­ing time off to cope with men­tal health is­sues took the In­ter­net by storm. It prompted thou­sands of retweets, gar­nered dozens of head­lines and even in­spired a call-out from Sh­eryl Sand­berg: “We need more lead­ers who en­cour­age em­ploy­ees to bring their whole selves to work,” wrote the Face­book chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer.

For those who missed it, a Web de­vel­oper named Mada­lyn Parker, who has writ­ten that she suf­fers from anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, wrote an email to her col­leagues say­ing she’d be out for a cou­ple of days to “fo­cus on my men­tal health.” Her CEO, Ben Con­gle­ton, replied by thank­ing her, say­ing ev­ery time she sends an email like that “I use it as a re­minder of the im­por­tance of us­ing sick days for men­tal health.” He added: “You are an ex­am­ple to us all, and help us cut through the stigma.” Parker shared it on so­cial me­dia, where it racked up hun­dreds of re­sponses. (“OMG. Are they hir­ing?” asked one user on Twit­ter.)

There are many rea­sons Parker’s email got such a vis­ceral re­sponse. For one, peo­ple love read­ing sto­ries about the gen­er­ous bosses they wish they had — sto­ries of­ten get shared widely of CEOs who give away their stock, dole out gen­er­ous across-the­board raises or of­fer par­tic­u­larly cushy ben­e­fits to their work­ers. Con­gle­ton’s email was called a “mas­ter class in lead­er­ship” for his will­ing­ness to rec­og­nize his em­ployee’s needs and re­mind her col­leagues to do the same.

“Many peo­ple wish they lived in the kind of world that these emails rep­re­sent,” said Mary Killeen, a se­nior re­search as­so­ciate at Syra­cuse Univer­sity’s Bur­ton Blatt In­sti­tute, which fo­cuses on dis­abil­ity re­search and pol­icy. “Peo­ple wish they could be open with their su­per­vi­sor and col­leagues about need­ing time off, not be­cause they are phys­i­cally ill, but be­cause they are deal­ing with a per­sonal is­sue or an emo­tional state that makes it im­pos­si­ble, tem­po­rar­ily, to do their work.”

Then, there’s how well we can all re­late to the chal­lenges of tak­ing sick days. Many Amer­i­cans, of course, don’t get sick leave. But those who do — even if they don’t worry about the stigma of men­tal ill­ness — of­ten don’t use all their time off, whether be­cause of job in­se­cu­rity, a crush­ing work­load or an ex­pec­ta­tion to work even when they are sick in bed.

“Peo­ple are talk­ing about this a lot in the con­text of men­tal health, but per­haps an equally im­por­tant point is that our cul­ture around work in the U.S. may not be par­tic­u­larly healthy,” said David Man­dell, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Men­tal Health Pol­icy and Ser­vices Re­search at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

The re­sponse to the email also re­veals how many peo­ple con­tinue to cope with men­tal ill­ness in the work­place. One in 4 peo­ple will ex­pe­ri­ence a di­ag­nos­able men­tal ill­ness in their life­time. And a moun­tain of re­search has shown the stigma for peo­ple grap­pling with the is­sue at work.

“I was very im­pressed and ac­tu­ally sur­prised by the ex­tent of the vi­ral pickup” of the story, said John Quelch, the dean of the busi­ness school at the Univer­sity of Miami. “I think it in­di­cates there is an un­der­cur­rent of aware­ness in the pop­u­la­tion that this is an is­sue and it has not been ad­dressed in a sys­tem­atic way by most cor­po­ra­tions.”

Sur­veys by the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion’s Cen­ter for Or­ga­ni­za­tional Ex­cel­lence show that less than half of Amer­i­cans (44 per­cent) say they be­lieve the cli­mate at work sup­ports well­be­ing, and that nearly 20 per­cent of em­ploy­ees say the chal­lenges of their jobs were harder to han­dle in the past month be­cause of men­tal health is­sues such as de­pres­sion or anx­i­ety.

For em­ploy­ers, says the cen­ter’s di­rec­tor, David Bal­lard, “the costs of un­treated men­tal health is­sues, the lost productivity, is more costly than the treat­ment side be­cause peo­ple are there at work but not func­tion­ing to full ca­pac­ity.”

That is­sue, known as “pre­sen­teeism,” is one sev­eral men­tal health ex­perts said Parker’s email also high­lighted when she wrote that “hope­fully, I’ll be back next week and re­freshed and back to 100 per­cent.”

Stud­ies have shown that men­tal health is­sues such as de­pres­sion and men­tal ill­nesses had the third-high­est an­nual per-em­ployee costs from lost productivity while at work, up there with arthri­tis, hy­per­ten­sion, al­ler­gies, headaches and di­a­betes.

Man­dell notes that the es­ti­mated productivity cost to work­ing while sick is far more than the costs busi­nesses en­dure when peo­ple are out of work. “The stigma as­so­ci­ated with men­tal health that causes peo­ple to bring those to work is ac­tu­ally a huge productivity drain,” he said.

Yet for many em­ploy­ees, tak­ing sick days to cope with men­tal health ill­nesses doesn’t feel like an op­tion. In some work­places, they may have to pro­vide a doc­tor’s note, which is eas­ier to do for a high fever than a panic at­tack.

“Com­pa­nies are very ner­vous about open­ing the Pan­dora’s box on men­tal health and sup­port be­cause of un­known quan­tifi­ca­tion of costs,” Quelch said. “Given the stigma, the path of least re­sis­tance is to not take the sick day.”

Still, many were en­cour­aged to see the pos­i­tive, vi­ral re­sponse of Parker’s email and her CEO’s re­sponse. Ron Hon­berg, se­nior pol­icy ad­viser for the Na­tional Al­liance on Men­tal Ill­ness, said he recalls the of­fen­sive news­pa­per car­toons and neg­a­tive, vi­ral re­sponse from two decades ago came af­ter it be­came clear the Amer­i­cans With Dis­abil­i­ties Act ap­plied to men­tal health.

He says, “men­tal health day” has emerged as a used term that can mean any­thing from need­ing a break from ex­haus­tion and stress to deal­ing with a more se­ri­ous men­tal ill­ness.

“Peo­ple will take a day of sick leave due to a very bad cold and we know they’re go­ing to re­cover and it isn’t go­ing to be a chronic con­di­tion, and peo­ple take sick leave be­cause they have chronic con­di­tions,” he said. “The same stan­dards should ap­ply to men­tal health con­di­tions.”

He thinks the use of “men­tal health day” is okay: “The fact we’re us­ing it so com­monly maybe re­flects progress.”

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