Why We Need To Normalise Taking Mental Health Days As Sick Leave

Photography by Fernanda Liberti.
Mental health conversations have come a long way in recent years — no longer do we wait for commercialised days to ask each other if we’re OK (spoiler alert, we’re not), and intersections of gender and race are no longer afterthoughts, but pivotal to how we speak about mental illness.  
The way we talk about work has drastically changed too; four-day work weeks, flexible conditions and a departure from side hustles have seen us questioning what we’ve been conditioned to accept from our jobs.
But when you put the two progressive movements together, the result is rather lacklustre. While you can find discussions around career burnout and the complicated stresses that workplaces cultivate in think pieces and Instagram self-help carousels, actually having these conversations at work with your superiors can feel daunting at best, and fearful at worst. 
Take sick leave, for example. Consider the guilt and imposter syndrome that inhibits people from actually taking the leave that they’re entitled to. A OnePoll survey found that two in three employees that were required to give a reason for calling in sick reported feeling like their bosses never believe their reason.
We’ve moved past the notion that illnesses have to be visible for them to be considered valid, so why is taking mental health leave as sick leave still taboo?

What are you entitled to?

Liz Bower is the acting media advisor for the Community and Public Sector Union and tells Refinery29 Australia that Australian workers are entitled to personal leave (also known as sick leave) under the National Employment Standards. While the amount of personal leave varies, Bower makes it clear that “all Australian workers are also protected from discrimination on the basis of illness or injury.”
“[It’s] important to note that [workers] are not required to disclose the nature of the illness to their employer, unless it relates to a workers compensation claim,” she says. “Requirements to provide medical certificate or statutory declaration vary between employers (e.g. some require documentation after 3 consecutive days) but again, this does not need to disclose the nature of the illness.”

How should you ask for mental health leave?

Nailing that sick day request can be tough, especially when mental health is involved. Asking for mental health leave doesn't have to be any different, though.
The golden rules — keeping unnecessary details to a minimum, being clear about your needs and setting boundaries and expectations (from your side and your manager's side) — apply here too. Sending a text or an email can make the process a lot smoother as well.
As Bower said, you don't need to tell your boss that you're using your sick leave as mental health leave. But if you feel comfortable, safe and are in a position to do so, being honest about mental health can help break down stigmas; there's nothing to be ashamed of.
And for people who are feeling pressured to access other forms of leave, like annual leave, Bower encourages them to contact their union representative who can help rectify this and negotiate on your behalf.
“We can also represent them in applying for the correct leave form to be used after the fact and can apply to have the annual leave re-credited if they accessed that in error,” she says.

How widespread is stress and anxiety at work?

Research from Headspace App found that 91% of working Australians report experiencing moderate to extreme stress at least once a week. Clinical psychologist Mary Spillane tells Refinery29 Australia that stress and anxiety at work are normal and expected. What people have to look out for is when these feelings are “prolonged or overwhelming”.   
It seems that for many of us, these experiences of stress and anxiety fall into the latter category. Headspace App also found that 72% of Australians have missed at least one day of work in the past year because of stress, anxiety or other mental health struggles.
For full-time workers, it’s a cycle that’s hard to break free from. But taking a day off work for mental health reasons can short circuit this. “Sometimes when we have felt anxious for a long period, we can get into a stress cycle, whereby our brains are constantly looking for and reacting to stressors in the environment,” explains Spillane. “Taking time off work can help to break this stress cycle and help our body and brain to relax and repair.”

Tips to spot burnout in its early stages

In the long run, it’s helpful to be able to spot the early signs of burnout; sick leave is helpful but it can be a temporary bandaid for a bigger issue. Spillane says that fatigue and lack of energy, frequent negativity about your workplace or colleagues, irritability, and apathy about your work quality are things to look out for. 

What should employers be doing to help?

A large chunk of responsibility lies with employers. With Headspace App finding that one in three Australian workers feel as if their employer isn’t doing enough to support their mental health, it’s an area that leaves a lot to be desired. 
Some workplace ‘green flags’ that Spillane recommends are that employers monitor workloads and employee work hours, promote and act on mentally-healthy behaviours like having a work-life balance, encouraging employees to use leave and creating an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting back on how they’re finding workloads and hours.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, please contact Lifeline (131 114) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636). Support is available 24/7. 
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