Mental health days: why it's so hard for employees to ask for time off

We can easily approach our bosses if we think we’re getting a cold, but when it comes to the state of our mental health,  employees often have a hard time asking for time off.

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After a story of a woman’s e-mail exchange to her CEO asking for mental health days went viral, many social media users brought up the difficulties of talking about their mental health illnesses at work. And while this woman’s courage to ask for days off is a win for ending stigmas around mental health, it is still not something many can do.

There is often a fear of being fired, looking lazy or unproductive, experts say, and sometimes, employers may not be sympathetic or even believe you.

According to a Canadian study from earlier this year, depression and anxiety were the most prevalent mental health conditions that affected employees in the workplace.

READ MORE: Do millennials expect a lot when it comes to mental health in the workplace?

Why the stigma of mental health still exists

Dr. David S. Goldbloom, senior medical adviser of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), says there needs to be a balance between honesty and privacy when it comes to health information. He adds while it is common for most of us to  avoid sharing the details of a urinary tract infection with our managers, for example, people avoid mental illnesses altogether.

“People can request days off without going into details,” he tells Global News. “If you are suffering from depression, why is it considered different than a back spasm, urinary tract infection or migraine? People are not obliged to describe the time off.”

READ MORE: The No. 1 mental health issue Canadian employees take time off work for

Ed Mantler, the vice-president of programs and priorities at the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), says people are still not comfortable with their own mental health disorders, and often due to a sense of shame, they will not share it with others in an office space.

“And unfortunately, many bosses would not react in a positive way,” he tells Global News. “But things are changing in Canada, we have a number of organizations who have implemented national standards to change their places into a healthy one.”

The standards — the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace — are voluntary, and provide a methodology on how to improve the psychological health and safety of employees in Canada. Mantler adds several companies have used these standards to create healthier spaces.

In Canada, the MHCC adds, the economic burden of mental disorders has been estimated at $ 51 billion per year, $ 20 billion of this comes from workplace losses.

Organizations have to set examples

Goldbloom says besides looking at the national standards,  leadership teams and companies also have a role to play in ensuring employees can ask for time off.

“We have to recognize how common these problems are,” he says. “One in five Canadians, in any workplace, has experienced a mental illness.” He adds recognizing these health conditions earlier on can prevent long-term leaves or disabilities.

Mantler says if people in leadership roles are also open to talking about their own battles with mental health, this could set a positive example for others in the company.

“Some companies have even made mental health wellness days that are readily available for people to take time off,” he explains. “For others, counselling is part of their insurance package.”

Why we need to end the stigma

And just like all mental health conditions, stigmas won’t end overnight. But Mantler says even though as a nation we are doing better, case studies have shown Canadians need the help.

Through his organization, some studies have shown an increase in employees using counselling through their workplaces.

READ MORE: This employee needed mental health days. This is how her CEO responded

And he says for anyone who is fearful about speaking up or asking for leave, just remind yourself this is about improving your mental health in the long run.

“By the age of 40, half of [Canadians] will have some kind of mental health issue or illness and most of us are carrying on in our workplace … the myth that people with mental health illness are lazy and less confident is just a myth,” he says. “We have to continue to balance the stigma.”

— With files from Carmen Chai

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