Is it still taboo to take a mental health sick day?

By Kate Palmer
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

Madalyn Parker, a US web developer, sparked a debate about workplace attitudes to mind problems after tweeting an email from her boss.

Her boss said she was an "example to us all" by telling colleagues she was taking sick leave for her mental health - but would British managers be similarly supportive?

In an email titled "Where's Madalyn", she told colleagues: "I'm taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I'll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%".

Chief executive Ben Congleton replied to the message, saying: "I can't believe this is not standard practice at all organisations," adding: "You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work."

What are your rights in the UK?

In the UK, there is no legal difference between taking a mental health sick day and a day off for a physical problem like a back problem.

Last year, Britons took 137 million sick days. Of these, 15.8 million days were for a stated mental health issue - whether that is stress, depression, anxiety or a more serious condition such as manic depression and schizophrenia - according to Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey statistics.

By contrast, 34 million days were "lost" to minor illnesses, like coughs and colds.

But Madeleine McGivern, head of workplace wellbeing at charity Mind, says "people are still wary" of admitting their sick day is actually due to mental health.

Image source, @madalynrose

"There is definitely a fear it will affect your career, or that people will judge you and make assumptions that aren't fair or true," she says.

"If you're not in a supportive environment, if you do disclose a mental health problem it can be really harmful to you."

Despite the stigma, she says employers are legally required to protect the health and safety of those at work - and this includes mental health problem if it affects a person's day-to-day life.

"If you are unwell for any reason, you should be able to work in a place where you feel you can say 'I'm unwell today because I've got an inflamed back' or 'I've got really high feelings of anxiety at the moment' - they're actually the same thing," she says.

Lisa, a 42-year-old manager, contacted the BBC to say she felt pressured to "put on a brave face" and go to work while dealing with depression.

"I've been working in the public sector for over 20 years and have twice had short periods off work through mental health issues," she says.

She says she feared being stigmatised as "flaky" if she took time off.

"The need to 'put on a brave face' was overwhelming and in the end too much for me," she says.

"I was prescribed anti-depressants and stayed off work for a few weeks. Even when I returned I wasn't supported and felt further ostracised."

Image source, PA

Lisa says her career had "until now been the defining passion in my life", adding: "As a previously high-performing individual the treatment I received felt like a bereavement."

Six months ago, she took time off after dealing with ageing parents and her moving house.

"I took just a few days off work to 'sort myself out', seeing the GP, finding a counsellor and starting an exercise and diet regime."

Now, she says "I am still battling on" but that there are still days when she feels her workplace does not care about her as an individual.

"It makes me wonder how other people are coping and what is going on under the surface of a lot of other 'brave faces'," she says.

What is being done to help?

Large companies are keen to say they are supporting staff and tackling stigma around mental health.

Some 500 companies - including Tesco, Unilever and M&S - have made a pledge known as "Time to Change", where they commit to tackling problems like anxiety and depression in the workplace.

It involves training managers to spot the signs of mental illness among their workers and raise awareness.

"When you look at the reality of the situation, mental health isn't being addressed properly," says Sam Gurney, head of equality and strategy at the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Research by the TUC shows just one in four people who have suffered from a mental illness or phobia for one year are in work.

"People can be terrified of saying they have some kind of issue," Sam says.

"If you're on a zero-hours contract, you're far less likely to go to your boss and say 'I've got these issues' because they're going to see that person as a problem."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Aaron Lennon returned to training after receiving mental health support

Many workplace unions encourage employers to have a sickness procedure that covers issues such as anxiety - and to tackle the root cause of mental issues, for example by training employees to also act as mentors.

In light of more professional footballers seeking help for mental health problems, including Everton's Aaron Lennon, the Professional Footballers' Association runs a 24-hour helpline and says it is telling players it is "OK to talk".

Police, fire, ambulance and search-and-rescue teams in England and Wales are unusual in that workers receive government-funded mental health support.

Through a £1.5m grant, Mind provides emergency staff and volunteers with access to help under a project known as Blue Light.

Ms McGivern says the charity also offers legal advice to anyone feeling forced out at work, adding: "There's something to be said about the way we look for work.

"The power's with the employee to choose where to work and ask - are they going to work with me or break me into a million pieces?" she says.