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Are mental health days the wrong answer to the right questions?

26 Aug 2021 By Jeremy Snape

Organisations shouldn’t be prioritising mental wellbeing only when someone is on the edge of burnout, they need to have a sustainable and healthy model, says Jeremy Snape

The pandemic has created the biggest and fastest shift in working cultures ever. It was unimaginable to think that around 50 per cent of the world’s workforce could work from home within a few months, but the grand experiment has returned a largely positive result. 

There have been costs though and the necessity for businesses to urgently ‘reimagine’ or ‘pivot’ their strategy sounded sexy, but in effect translated to everyone working twice as hard for months on end. No team player wants to let their colleagues down in a crisis so employees did whatever it took to keep their businesses alive, at points to their own detriment.

While acute periods of overload are normal in the run into a year-end of sales or a high-pressure project deadline, sustaining this for extended periods has come at a cost. 

Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45bn each year and according to data from the Office for National Statistics, depression rates have doubled since the coronavirus pandemic began. 

The Health and Safety Executive cited 602,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2018/19 in Great Britain. In 2018/19, stress, depression or anxiety were responsible for 44 per cent of all cases of work-related ill health and 54 per cent of all working days lost due to health issues. 

The great pause has given us a different perspective, a more human view of the world and a broader definition of success. The question is – how can an organisation create a culture where the individuals thriving is as important as soaring profit margins? 

Traditionally, many businesses saw their staff as a means to an end, as performers in the machine rather than as real people. Seeing their personal tragedies, emotional turbulence, and family dynamics across Zoom screens has changed our view.  

While the exodus to home offices was swift, the recalibration of people policies is more sedate. We know that our expectations are different, but we don’t really know what the company handbook should say. While in some respects, ‘new age’ policy gangs are out defining their ‘mental health days’ policies, I wonder if this is really the right answer. 

Having spent 20 years as a professional cricketer, I have seen mental health go from being buried in shame to being broadcast proudly. Sports stars have always suffered from the mental fatigue and pressure of elite performance, they just covered it up with a hamstring strain or a back spasm. Gymnast Simone Biles and cricketer Ben Stokes have recently reversed this with courageous statements that they are taking time out to regain their mental health. In doing so, they have shown that long-term resilience is far more than being relentless. 

This has always been the case in business too – when employee anxiety or workload became too much they would call in sick or blame a family crisis. One in five people take a day off due to stress. Yet, 90 per cent of these people cited a different reason for their absence (mind.org).

As awareness and courage in society grows, it’s hoped that more people will request ‘mental health days’ rather than concealing their state.

But this model isn’t straightforward – frazzled employees would need to summon the courage to enter an awkward conversation with their boss (who may have compounded the situation) who would attempt to be as supportive as possible without prying and the employee plans their day in the forest, seaside or spa. This may seem a good result, but the tactical solution doesn’t really solve the systemic problem. 

I am a massive advocate of people and organisations prioritising mental wellbeing but when someone is on the edge of burnout, it takes more than a day in the forest to fix it.  This is the emergency response – the wrong answer to the right question. 

What we’re all looking for is a sustainable and healthy model, not a model which builds up loads of stress and pressure until the release valve bursts open.  

It’s important that mental health or duvet days are available for people feeling overwhelmed. But what about recalibrating our expectations and permissions as people sculpt their new working rhythm. 

Can we allocate proactive wellbeing breaks in our days and our working weeks?

Can we request that people share their holiday dates to ensure they are taken regularly?

Can we set new limitations to prevent endless virtual calls and overnight email chains? 

Can we get our senior leaders to set the tone and to explain that an evening email doesn’t need an immediate response? 

Our fear is that it sounds like we are slowing down and losing our edge but the opposite is true. As technology advances it should automate our repetitive tasks to free us up to be more human. Unlike robots, we need space and time to think creatively and to build stronger connections with peers and clients. 

As we make the return to our offices, hybrid working models will prevail. We have an opportunity to create a new culture which builds mental wellbeing into its KPI’s. An organisation that educates its managers and employees about positive habits and routines about proactive mental health won’t need to rely on emergency recovery days. 

So as many leaders rethink their people policies – the question remains. How do we ensure that our culture values our people thriving as much as it values our profits?  

Jeremy Snape is a former England cricketer, founder of Sporting Edge and has his own podcast series: Inside the Mind of Champions

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