Many countries have implemented a mental health day, where an employee or student can take a day off for reasons other than physical illness. When will this come to Canada?
One in five Canadians experiences a mental health problem in any given year. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what your background is, how much you earn, or how well educated you are. If you’re human, you can struggle with your mental health.
Experts like The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) know that mental health is a key part of overall health. It’s a fundamental part of human wellbeing.
The most common mental health problems are anxiety and depression. Five per cent of adults experience an anxiety disorder and 8% deal with depression at some time in their life. By age 40, around half of the population are estimated to have or have had a mental illness.
Moreover, many people don’t feel valued or supported in the workplace and, as a result, their health suffers. Taking a day off to deal with mental health is one obvious step in addressing these issues.
Chloe Rosemarin has been volunteering in the mental health space for the past 10 years and moderates an online peer support group based in Toronto. “Mental Health Days are very important, and I wish we had them here in Canada,” she says.
Rosemarin says you need a doctor’s appointment for a psychological disorder like a panic attack in the same way you need one for a physical ailment such as a broken wrist.
“What difference does it make if your appointment is with a physician or
a psychiatrist?” she asks. “You still need to take time off work to attend the appointment, and not addressing the issue is going to prevent you from carrying out the tasks that you are responsible for.”
In Ontario, many employees are given “personal days,” which can be used for anything. No one is going to know whether you take a personal day because you are too sad to get out of bed or because you have a cold. However, Chloe warns it’s easy to get fired for poor attendance at work if you don’t disclose the reason for missed work days.
Introducing Mental Health Days to the workforce might help to reduce some of the stigma surrounding anxiety and depression. If employees are able to express what is really going on, even if that’s just saying, “Something has come up and I have to deal with my health now,” it could have a major impact on the quality of life of Canadians.
Alex Shendelman is the program manager at the Distress Centre of Greater Toronto. He sees people of all demographics struggling with their mental health on a regular basis. “My sense is that not enough is being done to support people around mental health in the workplace,” he says.
Suicide is a leading cause of death for adolescents, young adults, and middle-aged people living in Canada. In Toronto’s Suicide Prevention Program, Shendelman regularly comes across individuals dealing with the longer- term effects of traumatic events, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. He sees first-hand how poor mental health impacts the workplace and people’s work-life situation as a whole.
“It’s almost akin to pulling teeth to help workplaces understand the impact of mental health issues on an employee’s ability to function at work,” he says. “I do encounter some incredibly flexible and understanding workplaces. It’s just not consistent.”
According to Shendelman, one of the problems we face in Canada is that organizations use different criteria for sick days. “Some companies allow employees to take a sick day for mental health reasons, but others do not. Mental Health Days could be introduced as a separate category. Otherwise, we need more clarity around what constitutes a sick day in a way that considers physical and mental health hand-in-hand.”
Brigid Dineen is a Certified Life Coach who supports individuals who are struggling in their personal and professional lives. She thinks the stigma surrounding mental health issues means many employees would not choose to take Mental Health Days even if they were introduced in Canada. “I anticipate that people will be afraid of reprisal or judgement,” she says.
Dineen agrees with Shendelman that it might be a better idea to work with what is already in place in workplaces. “An alternative approach would be to expand the definition of a sick day to include mental health. That way, employees would not have to raise their hand and specify that their time off is specifically due to mental health,” she says.
Dineen also makes the point that employers should think beyond Mental Health Days and focus on creating a company culture that supports the wellbeing of their staff in general. “Set against the backdrop of a toxic work culture, Mental Health Days may come across as a token gesture rather than a true commitment to wellness,” she says.
It’s almost akin to pulling teeth to help workplaces understand the impact of mental health issues
Jen Squibb is a social worker based in Toronto. She provides counselling and support to patients and their families to help them adjust after a brain injury diagnosis. “I don’t know if mental health days are the answer,” she says. “I think addressing the workplace culture and trying to weave in practices that help to make people feel good at work would be better than people having to take time off.”
Squibb has seen how challenging work cultures can be for employees with mental health issues. “Many people are asked to stay late to meet deadlines, and there are generally demands to get things done quickly and efficiently,” she says. “If someone tries to take time to improve their mental health, co- workers will ask what’s going on and it’s stigmatized.”
Squibb also makes a great point. Let’s say you take a Mental Health Day. What do you actually do on that day? “Sometimes when people take time off, it isn’t actually helpful for their mental health,” she says. “We think it will help them rest and recharge, but it can make them quite isolated.”
If you are unable to recover successfully on a Mental Health Day, you’re just going to go back to work with the same problem—it’s a Band-Aid situation.
Both Squibb and Dineen believe it makes more sense for employers to give their workers better access to counselling services and to provide a more supportive workplace in general. For example, if employees were given flexible working hours in order to attend exercise classes during the day, it could significantly boost their mood and improve their attention and productivity in the long-term. Just taking regular breaks can make the world of difference, but that isn’t encouraged or supported in some company cultures.
Even if Mental Health Days are introduced in Canadian workplaces, it takes a long time for big government changes like this to come into play. Shendelman encourages anyone who is struggling with mental health issues to seek help and support wherever they can.
“I would like to say that Mental Health Days will be implemented in Canada but, the wheels turn slowly. In the meantime, find allies and seek support wherever you can. Perhaps one of the worst things you could be doing is trying to tackle this alone.
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Author: Sophie Ash is a freelance medical writer and copywriter based in Toronto. She creates educational content in healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, across all therapeutic areas.