By Sarah Hall
Workers are stressed, and for good reason. The labor force is grappling with all kinds of upheaval, including inflation, layoffs and the ongoing ripple effects of the pandemic.
A 2023 Gallup analysis found that 48% of U.S. employees had experienced “a lot of stress” on the job during the previous day. In the same survey, more than one-fourth of workers said they were always or very often feeling burned out at work.
And just as workers’ stress and burnout levels are growing, they also feel like their employers aren’t mindful of their mental health. Gallup found just 25% of respondents believed their organization cared about their well-being, down from 49% in May 2020.
Plenty of companies, however, are attempting to respond to the growing mental health needs of their workers, adding virtual counseling or boosting insurance coverage. Some are also rolling out mental health days — or adding more — to let workers focus on their well-being.
For many employees, mental health days provide a needed respite, but employers must be cautious. Here’s how mental health days are a boon for some employees — and why organizations should also remain aware of their drawbacks.
What Are Mental Health Days?
Mental health days are typically paid days off outside of the sick or vacation time employers already offer. Some employers offer two or three days a year; others give employees a full week to focus on wellness.
Mental health days provide employees with the opportunity to get away from the daily stressors of work, and they’re popular. According to SHRM Research, 58% of U.S. workers surveyed said the best way to support their mental health is to offer paid mental health days.
What Are the Benefits of Mental Health Days?
Mental health days provide advantages for both employees and their employers, ensuring that everybody can do their best work. Here are three big benefits.
1. Workers can recharge.
Employees are human, and they lead busy lives on the job and at home. Mental health days allow more time for self-care. An extended weekend away or even one day devoted to focusing on well-being makes a difference, according to the Mayo Clinic Health System. People who take a mental health day can reduce their feelings of burnout, improve their overall morale and feel less isolated if they spend it with loved ones.
2. They send the message that mental health matters.
Especially if discussions around mental health and the importance of balance come from the very top of the organization, employers can send the message that their employees’ well-being matters.
But to hammer home that vital message, an organization’s executives and managers must demonstrate it’s OK to take advantage of the company’s offerings, whether it’s an Employee Assistance Program, on-site yoga classes or mental health days.
To do that, organizations can signal their importance in employee newsletters, team discussions and regular one-on-ones between direct reports and managers. And, when appropriate, leaders and managers can share how those resources have helped them find balance.
3. Mental health days support retention and productivity.
Depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion a year in reduced productivity, according to the World Health Organization. Research shows happy and engaged workers are more productive and less likely to quit. Simply put, workers who aren’t burdened with stress or feelings of burnout produce great work.
Why Should Employers Be Cautious About Mental Health Days?
While a day off to care for their well-being is enough for some workers to overcome on-the-job stress, many mental health conditions require far more support. What’s more, growing numbers of workers seeking mental health support should trigger some introspection and evaluation of current workplace practices. Here are three reasons why employers should proceed with caution when offering mental health days.
1. Not every worker will take them.
Stigma around mental health challenges still exists, and there’s a good chance that even employees who could benefit from a mental health day won’t take one. According to an Aetna survey, workers are twice as likely to take time off for a physical ailment than a mental health one.
Top-down discussions about the importance of their well-being can encourage reluctant workers to avail themselves of the day off. In some cases, organizations have provided company-wide mental health days, shutting down to give every worker a break. Other employers are providing incentives to workers when they use their mental health days.
2. They must be constantly assessed.
A mental health day off will provide little benefit to your workers if an organization’s policies, practices and leadership are the problem. Inattentive managers, ineffective policies and unrealistic expectations can all trigger feelings of burnout.
It’s critical that employers constantly assess the employee experience through engagement surveys, exit interviews and one-on-one discussions between managers and employees. Leaders must dig into the results to find any potential issues and immediately address them.
3. They must be part of a broader mental health strategy.
Mental health days are hardly a one-and-done answer to employees’ challenges, especially for those who are grappling with serious conditions such as depression or anxiety. Instead, they should be part of a broader response to mental health concerns in the workplace.
Other essential benefits include access to mental health care through insurance coverage, Employee Assistance Programs and virtual mental health support. Employees also are seeking out mindfulness or yoga classes and mental health support groups; they’d also like to see mandatory mental health training for managers and employees, according to SHRM Research.
The rising tide of mental health issues in the workplace requires a thoughtful, all-hands-on-deck response. Mental health days are part of the solution, letting workers recharge and sending the message that their well-being is important. But employees and employers will only reap the biggest rewards from those days off when they are part of an organization’s broader strategy to support their employees’ wellbeing.