The Futility Of Mental Health Days

Updated: Jan 24

Bernie Wong | Manager of Research & Design, Mind Share Partners

Mental health days have quickly descended upon workplace wellness conversations nationwide. Within companies, the trend has been lauded as an exciting new change by some and its utility still debated upon by others. Popular media has followed suit, with stories evangelizing its benefits, offering guidance on how to ask for them, and cautioning the possible risks in their implementation. 

The growing popularity of mental health days is promising—the need for change around workplace mental health has been long overdue. However, the attention dedicated to whether or not employees should have a day off to take care of their mental health is limiting, slightly misdirected, and frankly uninformed. 

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Mental health days are by no means a novel concept 

With the growing popularity of mental health days, some companies have begun formalizing the practice into policy, packaging mental health days as a new and effective wellness “strategy” to support employee mental health. 

The reality is that employees across industries, demographics, and seniority levels have always been taking mental health days—they have simply remained hidden under the guise of “feeling sick,” “family emergencies,” and other reasons. In fact, 95% of employees who have taken time off due to stress named another reason, such as an upset stomach or headache. What’s more, less than 30% of employees feel comfortable talking to their managers about their mental health, and even less (25%) to HR. 

Mental health days have always been happening. The difference now is that some companies are deciding whether employees have expressed permission to take care of themselves. While the discourse reflects a growing openness to mental health at work, the need for mental health support extends well beyond a day off. 

Mental health days are not an optimal strategy for workplace mental health

Creating a mentally healthy workplace requires company culture change, here's why. When faced with a stressed or burnt-out employee, a typical suggestion is to take time off, or now, a “mental health day.” When implemented well, employees report lowered stress and improved productivity upon return. However, there are pitfalls to using time off as a go-to mental health strategy.