Why Some Companies Want You to Take a Mental-Health Day

By Francesca Fontana Features Dow Jones Newswires

Bosses want their workers to start taking mental-health days for the right reasons.

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Workers often say they're taking a mental-health day with a wink and a nudge, as it's commonly understood that they'll be catching up on housework or going to the beach. Meanwhile, many people who genuinely need time off to see a therapist or recover from an anxiety attack say they're less than forthcoming with their managers about why they need a break.

More companies are trying to destigmatize mental illness and encourage workers to use mental-health days for their original intent. EY, or Ernst & Young, has an initiative called "r u ok?", which encourages workers to check in with each other and offer support to those who might be struggling. American Express Co.'s employee-assistance program offers on-site access to mental-health professionals and free counseling. Prudential Financial Inc. gives employees flexible work arrangements and access to mental-health professionals.

Taking time off for mental illness can qualify as a sick day or personal time off, depending on the company's policies.

The policies don't just reflect employer benevolence. Major depressive disorder alone cost companies $78 billion in lost productivity in 2010 due to employees showing up to work while struggling with the illness, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

In June, Madalyn Parker, a web developer at Ann Arbor, Mich., software maker Olark, sent a companywide email letting her team know she was taking a couple of days off to focus on her mental health. "Hopefully I'll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%," she wrote. Olark's CEO Ben Congleton replied and thanked Ms. Parker for her openness.

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"Every time you (send emails like this), I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health," he wrote. "You are an example to us all."

Ms. Parker, who suffers from depression and anxiety, later tweeted a screenshot of the exchange with the caption, "When the CEO responds to your out of the office email about taking sick leave for mental health and reaffirms your decision."

The tweet went viral with nearly 50,000 users liking the post, and Mr. Congleton garnered widespread praise from other executives like Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg.

Aside from Mr. Congleton's empathetic response, what likely resonated with thousands of Twitter users was Ms. Parker's candid explanation of her need for rest, says Clare Miller, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

Still, many people are unwilling to open up, fearing it could jeopardize their careers. One in five adults in the U.S. has a mental-health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But most workers who have a mental illness keep it secret at work. A 2014 survey conducted by market research firm Ipsos SA found that 73% of workers with depression hadn't told their employer about their diagnosis. Almost half of respondents said they thought telling their boss would put their job at risk.

"Silence often equals shame," Ms. Miller says. "It adds power to the stigma by not feeling free to share all of yourself at work."

Legal experts point out that the law protects employees with mental illnesses and provisions in the Americans With Disabilities Act allow such workers to seek accommodations like modified work schedules, says James McDonald, a California-based employment attorney at Fisher Phillips.

In 2016, Ms. Parker's company, Olark, added language about mental health to its employee handbook. The company's flexible paid time off policy now includes provisions for "mental health needs such as a rest day [or] seeking treatment," according to a spokesman.

Boston software company HubSpot has taken a different tack. It offers its roughly 1,800 employees flexible hours and unlimited vacation so they can take time off without feeling forced to explain why, says Katie Burke, the company's chief people officer. The aim is to make employees feel comfortable "taking off the armor" and sharing who they are without forcing them to divulge their private struggles, she says.

HubSpot also has meditation rooms at its main office, and employees started a group called ZenSpot to promote self-care and mindfulness, Ms. Burke says.

Taking the extra steps to create a culture that supports mental health can send a powerful message to employees, says Jeanne Meister, a consultant who advises Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. on workplace issues.

"They will never forget that," Ms. Meister says, and in the long run managers can see increased loyalty and retention as a result.

Ms. Parker, 26, has been living with depression and anxiety since college, she says. When she had panic attacks during meetings at Olark, she says she would excuse herself just long enough to go to the bathroom, take a Xanax and return to the gathering.

"I would plow right through," she says. If she had to miss work due to her mental illness, Ms. Parker says she would email her co-workers vague excuses. Now, she says she's transparent about her mental health with co-workers to set an example for "the majority of people are suffering silently."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 15, 2017 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)