At a time when mental health awareness is better than ever, it’s probably a good idea to take things back to basics and see how our newfound enlightened approach to looking after ourselves upstairs translates to real-world practical advice.
“Self-care” is the buzzword du jour and the very concept of “wellness” has become a multi-trillion dollar industry, but just how that applies to real-world solutions in the workplace can be confusing waters to navigate, so we decided it was time to take a deeper look at taking a sick day for mental health complaints.
Mental Health in Australia
In Australia, we enjoy some pretty great working conditions compared with many other parts of the world. This is largely due to a strong history of union involvement in the workplace, as well as a generally high standard of living. We also have a great culture of work/life balance (okay, we hear you screaming about that last part, lawyers) and value time in the sun with the sand between our toes as much as we do a day of hard yakka, whether on the back of a horse or seated at a desk.
One of the many standards that most of us probably take for granted Down Under is our access to sick leave (or paid personal leave as it is more commonly now known).
Paid personal leave for full-time employees in Australia is (generally speaking) 10 days a calendar year, and can be used for varying reasons.
A common question, however, is whether or not those days can be used for a mental health day, i.e. is a day to get my head back on track just as valid as staying in with the flu?
The answer, in short, is yes.
Though many see staying home if you’re contagious as being both good for the company, your co-workers, and your own wellbeing, there’s actually a very good case for encouraging employees to take a day or two for their mental health for similar reasons.
Multinational professional services network PwC released a report in 2014 which found that for every dollar a company invested in creating a mentally healthy environment, it reaped an average of AUD$2.30 in profit. This information is supported by evidence from Heads Up, which estimated that untreated mental health concerns cost Aussie workplaces about AUD$10.9 billion a year.
That’s a lot of stress balls.
So, as more and more workplaces are waking up to the importance of healthy minds for their workforce whilst on the job (because if basic human decency isn’t motivation enough, a fatter bottom line always is), communicating honestly about needing some “me” time is easier too.
Do I need to tell my boss about my mental health?
In Australia, it’s a bit of a grey area with no definitive answer, but a little common-sense goes a long way. While there is no legal requirement to inform your employer about any mental health concerns unless they may endanger the safety of yourself or your colleagues (i.e. if you operate heavy machinery or are required to, say, make important decisions that affect the safety of others), being open and honest can have its advantages.
For one, you might find that your employer can make a few small changes to your work structure to have big impacts on your ability to perform. A small change made by your boss could affect how you manage deadlines, and things like the potential to work from home when required and setting more realistic expectations around flexibility can be invaluable.
And as managers are becoming more aware of the importance of a clean bill of health for their employees at every level, discreetly informing them of what’s going on doesn’t have the same taboo attached to it as it once might have.
There’s also the fact that a change in the state of your mental health could mean a change in your ability to carry out work tasks, or just a general (and usually noticeable) shift in your attitude that, without context, could become hard for your employer and colleagues to navigate.
By being open and honest about these changes you create a dialogue that can help alter existing and often outdated attitudes, as well as give your co-workers the ability to come to the table in terms of making your work life better.
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with wanting to maintain a high degree of privacy when it comes to your health, mental or physical, and that’s fine too.
What matters the most is that you are open about your needs, even if the causes are kept to yourself, so that your employer has the best tools to help you build a mutually beneficial working environment (and no valid excuses not to).
Is it okay to call in sick?
Most Australians who work on a full-time basis are given at least 10 days of paid personal leave per year. And though some workplaces require a doctor’s certificate in the instance of a sick day, a GP will be able to provide this if you need to take the time to get your mental health in order.
If you already have a diagnosis of something like clinical depression, then you should have no trouble being open and honest if you require a medical note. But even if you do not, a trip to the clinic to see a GP is a great opportunity to have a chat about what you could be experiencing in more detail, as well as a good chance to take a look at some of the potential causes for not feeling 100 per cent.
Remember, it’s important to communicate as much as possible here: the goal is to get back to work feeling on top of things within a workable timeframe.
Is it even legal?
Where the law stands on this in terms of your employment is not black and white, though it does make provisions in the sense that it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you because of your mental health.
According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, employees can use their entitled paid personal leave if they can’t work due to a “personal illness or injury”. Fair Work says that this can include stress, but it’s also important to note that stress leave is not a valid category in and of itself in terms of paid leave.
Overall, the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) strictly stipulates that an employee can’t be discriminated against due to mental health issues, meaning that an employer who tried to terminate an employment contract, or even demote an employee on the basis of their mental health, could end up in very hot water.
But what about my privacy?
This is protected thanks to the Australia-wide Privacy Act 1988 (Cth), which provides comprehensive protections for employees with regards to their personal information.
Anything you say to your boss can only be used by said boss for the purposes you set out, like making a work plan that caters to your needs. It has to be kept confidential and cannot be used for any other reasons.
It's also important to note that, in Australia, doctor's are not legally obliged to state on a medical certificate what the reason for missing work is.
Most GPs are happy to provide a certificate for mental health days, or too much stress.
But my job is the cause of my need for a day off!
Job got you down, but also the main thing that’s paying the rent? As anybody experiencing this already knows, it is a terrible scenario to be in. But, sadly, it’s also not uncommon.
This is an instance, however, where informing your boss of the challenges you are facing is key to finding a beneficial outcome.
If you ever find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having to file a formal disability discrimination case down the line, telling your employer of your mental health concerns is imperative to protecting your rights.
Waking up and feeling like you don’t want to go to work is not a new thing. Spending sufficient time on the tools (literal or metaphorical) is a necessary evil the 99 per cent of us must conquer to keep roofs above our heads and food in our bowls, and there are always going to be some days that are harder than others.
But there’s also no shame in recognising that some time away from the workplace can be the best thing to guarantee your ability to be the best when you are present. Just turning up for the sake of it when you’re not feeling your best can have detrimental consequences to yourself and your place of work.
Finding this balance will ultimately result in employees and employers striking a happy medium where everybody wins. But when it comes to communicating it, however you choose to go about it, the ball is most certainly in your court.
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Amelia Hanigan