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The do's & don'ts of mental health days at work for employees

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Has anyone at work ever told you that they needed to take a mental health day?

It’s been an expression used by workers for years to say they’re tired mentally and feel they need to take a day off from work to refresh themselves.

It once seemed harmless enough to say, and most people who heard it didn’t give it a second thought. But not anymore. Mental health days in the modern workplace are now a hot topic, and employees and employers are at odds.

This article will explore mental health days in depth and consider why employees want and need them so badly, how employers are responding, and more.

Why mental health days are important

Global statistics indicate workplace stress is being experienced by an increasing number of people struggling with mental health issues. According to Stress.org, workplace stress is a significant part of the general mental health crisis being experienced worldwide. Their research has shown that in the U.S.:

  • 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress.
  • US businesses lose up to $300 billion yearly as a result of workplace stress.
  • Stress causes around one million workers to miss work every day.
  • Only 43% of US employees think their employers care about their work-life balance.
  • Depression leads to $51 billion in costs due to absenteeism and $26 billion in treatment costs.
  • Work-related stress causes 120,000 deaths and results in $190 billion in healthcare costs yearly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a pandemic is “an outbreak of a disease that has spread across several countries or continents.” Based on that definition, COVID-19 isn’t the only pandemic we’ve been fighting in 2020 - 2021.

Affecting about one in five Americans, mental illness hasn’t had the sudden, high mortality rate of COVID-19, but it’s claimed over half a million lives of stressed workers in the past five years.

Employees are feeling it, employers are acknowledging it, yet progress is slow in arriving.

[ Related: Why companies must prioritize mental health in the workplace ]

Employees want (& need) relief

Do you work 40 or more hours per week? Do you use all of your vacation days or PTO days? Do you check your email, and respond, while you’re vacationing? If you answered yes to any of these, you’re not alone. In fact, 41% of employees admit to logging into work-related emails while on vacation.

A survey conducted by Lyra Health and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions asked over 120,000 U.S.-based employees who receive employer-sponsored health insurance about their mental health status and any support from their employer they receive for their mental health.

Their findings were very telling: 83% of U.S. workers are experiencing negative emotions associated with poor mental health because of multiple crises happening at the same time: the coronavirus pandemic, financial pressures, and a “national reckoning with racism.”

A particularly alarming statistic surfaced from the survey: 1 in 10 employees say they have thought about harming themselves or others over the past several months.

One piece of good news is that a majority of distressed employees (58%) believe they’ll be feeling better in the near future. American workers have been squeezed from all sides, but they’re demonstrating extraordinary optimism and resilience.

[ Report: Remote work anxiety is crippling employee productivity & mental health ]

How are employers responding?

Survey respondents were also asked to share their views on the support of their employers. The numbers show that while some organizations are providing support for workers’ mental health, many are not.

  • 40% of respondents don’t believe their employer cares about their mental health, beyond their ability to be productive
  • 25% feel their employer doesn’t support their mental health in any way
  • 47% said their employer hadn’t communicated any message of support in the past three months concerning either the pandemic or the racial justice movement
  • 38% of respondents said they were experiencing stress levels so high that they were considering a career change.

These numbers should be alarming to employers.

The cost to employers to replace these workers is exorbitant. According to a study conducted by BuiltIn, the average costs to replace an employee are:

  • $1,500 for hourly employees
  • 100% to 150% of an employee’s salary for technical positions
  • Over 200% of an employee’s salary for C-suite positions

The average cost for one employee, multiplied by the millions that are quitting their jobs, is costing American businesses billions, eventually trickling down to consumers.

[ Related: A quick guide to great resignation of 2021 ]

What employers should & shouldn't do — & why

Though most employers agree that mental health support for employees is essential, only a fraction of them say they are planning to expand their mental health benefits in any form — including mental health days.

Employers can help their own cause by:

  • Communicating with employees more frequently and encouraging them to take PTO days or mental health days if the company offers them. Companies just beginning to provide mental health days should put a campaign in place to notify employees of this additional benefit and assure them they won’t be penalized for taking days off to tend to their mental health.
  • Modeling behavior. Managers should set the example by using their mental health days — and refrain from sending emails to their employees while they’re not in the office. Don't ask probing questions when an employee requests taking a mental health day, like “What’s wrong?” or “What’s the issue?”
  • Measuring results. Employers should ask employees if they’ve used the benefit or will be using it in the near future and if it helped them when they did use it.

Employers should not forget the stigma attached to mental illness. Many people still feel that mental illness isn’t a disease, it’s a weakness. Because of this stigma, employees may experience fear of workplace violence from a co-worker who is taking multiple mental health days off (though no correlation between mental illness and workplace violence has been found).

Instead, employers should help employees overcome the stigma of mental illness. The Mayo Clinic suggests employees can deal with stigma by getting treatment, not isolating themselves, joining a support group, and speaking out against stigma.

Lastly, employers and employees need to continue the dialogue about mental health days in the workplace and talk about good mental hygiene to get this pandemic under control.


Having grown up in upstate New York, Bob Phillips spent over 15 years in the financial services world and has been making freelance writing contributions to blogs and websites since 2007. He resides in North Texas with his wife and Doberman puppy.

The information and content provided herein is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered legal, tax, investment, or financial advice, recommendation, or endorsement. Breeze does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, reliability or usefulness of any testimonials, opinions, advice, product or service offers, or other information provided here by third parties. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

Work-Life
Published October 14, 2021