Each day, millions of Americans with chronic conditions—mental illness, addictions, diabetes, asthma, and many more—go to work. In fact, 15% of adults who are employed full-time and 20% who are employed part-time experienced mental illness in the past year. Sometimes people with mental health conditions—like those with physical health conditions—need time off from work to cope with heightened symptoms or seek treatment.
Unfortunately, many people are skeptical of people taking sick leave to address mental health concerns. If you look up “mental health day” on websites that explain slang terms, most of the definitions equate the term to “playing hooky”—as if mental illness doesn’t merit the same consideration as physical illness. At SAMHSA, we work tirelessly to fight this type of misinformation.
That’s why a recent news story that attracted a great deal of attention gave me so much hope. When a web developer asked to take time off from work to “focus on her mental health,” the company’s CEO responded in an exemplary manner. He praised the web developer for reminding her co-workers of “the importance of using sick days for mental health” and being “an example to us all.”
Employers—particularly those with a small number of employees—have considerable flexibility in setting sick leave policies. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights laws give workers and job applicants with mental illness the same protections as those with any other chronic health condition. So, the CEO made a valid point about supporting mental health days when he wrote, “I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations.”
I applaud the employee for her openness and the CEO for his encouragement of other employees to step forward when they need to take time off to focus on their mental health. By encouraging employees to take mental health days when needed, the CEO showed that he is not only a caring person, but also a smart businessperson. He knows that a mentally healthy workplace can lead to increased productivity. As the Harvard Mental Health Letter observed, “In the long term, costs spent on mental health care may represent an investment that will pay off—not only in healthier employees, but also for the company's financial health.” Ensuring employee access to treatment (through health coverage and time off) reduces turnover, sick days, and workplace accidents, while increasing hours worked.
If you’re an employer who’d like to be more supportive of employee mental health needs, SAMHSA can help by providing guidance. It’s important to remember that people with mental illness, including those with serious mental illness, are willing and able to work. SAMHSA promotes evidence-based supported employment through grants to states and a comprehensive toolkit for service providers and government agencies. If we all work together, we can achieve a future in which asking for a mental health day is no different from calling out with a bad cold.