The Positive Pensive

An anxious pessimist tries to find the positive
Desks and computers in an office
Career Sick leave

The stigma around sick leave: what can we do?

It’s safe to say that most of us have experienced waking up in the morning and feeling entirely unlike ourselves. Whether it’s exhaustion, anxiety, or a debilitating lack of enthusiasm for the day ahead, getting ready for work can feel stressful and takes a mammoth effort.

It’s very unlikely on these days that we produce our best work – or are even remotely productive at all. The hours stretch out and all we can think about is how we’d rather be at home in bed, giving our overworked mind some time to recuperate.

Unfortunately, this isn’t really the ‘done thing’. Often, people will work themselves until they burn out – at which point it may take a medical professional needs to tell them to take a break.

So why is it that we can take a sick day when our bodies temporarily fail us, but not for our minds?

What’s the problem?

I’ve been meaning to get around to this topic for a while. During Mental Health Awareness week, a friend of mine posted this on Twitter:

A Twitter poll asks whether people have used 'flu' as an excuse for a mental health sick day. 73% said 'Yes', showing there is still a stigma around sick leave.

Even with a small sample size, it highlights pretty effectively that there is still stigma attached to taking time off in the interests of our mental health.

And it’s something I really struggle to get my head around. According to Fit for Work, nearly half of all extended sick leave can be attributed to mental health issues.

Not back pain. Not operation recovery. Not flu.

Meanwhile, Business Matters recently reported that one in three UK employees are suffering from anxiety, depression or stress.

These are some pretty astonishing findings, to say the least. So from a personal health point of view and a business perspective, a stigma around taking time off isn’t going to help anyone.

In fact, it’s in employers’ best interests to ensure their staff feel able to take time that keeps them motivated, productive and happy – and avoid the difficulties that occur as a result of long-term sick leave, overworked staff and high turnover.

Addressing the balance

These days, with work mobile phones and the ‘always on’ culture, it’s increasingly difficult to literally and figuratively switch off. Emails are sent on Sunday nights. Replies are expected. Working late just happens sometimes – but don’t expect to be paid for it.

And that’s sort of okay (I mean, it’s difficult to address societal trends when you’re already up to your eyeballs in shit to do), but as is so often the case with mental health: there needs to be a balance. Worked way over your hours for a few weeks to get a project over the line? Take a damn day off and recuperate. Lots of workplaces operate a Time Off In Lieu (TOIL) policy that allows employees to do just that. Kudos to you guys.

Of course, sometimes, our issues may not be solely work-related. We could be experiencing any number of difficulties, or dealing with side-effects from medication or, hell, just having an ‘off’ day. Sometimes, you don’t know it’s going to hit you like a truck until your alarm goes off and you wish you just had a day to yourself to not deal with it.

Instead you could just be at home under the covers with a mug of something hot and comforting.

That’s where organisational culture has a massive role to play.

What can we do?

Be upfront and honest, just as you would with flu (which is way more gross, anyway). As it happens that’s exactly what Madalyn Parker, a web developer and engineer, recently did:

Madalyn, a web developer and engineer, sends an out of office email for mental health reasons

I’m not even sure whether Madalyn realises how truly great that email is. No bullshit, no apologies, no excuses. Just a simple, straightforward email.

And what happened?

Her CEO sent her this:

Madalyn's boss replies to her email, thanking her for being open


This makes all the difference – supporting your employees, wanting them to thrive, and trusting them to not abuse the system. The emails have since spread across on Twitter and been picked up by a number of news outlets.

Of course, taking time off at short notice can be problematic for organisations – I get that. There is the danger that people will use mental health as an ‘excuse’ to avoid attending important meetings or hitting deadlines. Still, I have no doubt that plenty of people are using ‘flu’ for those exact reasons – why should people who need some recuperation time suffer be impacted as a result?

I believe any organisation wanting to promote good mental health should have clear guidelines around the subject. That can include policies about taking short-notice days off, returning to work after extended leave, access to stress management courses, in-house mentoring and more.

Everybody needs a break once in a while – and nobody should have to lie about it.

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