This Manager’s Response To Employee’s Mental Health Day May Be Raising The Bar For Offices Everywhere
“Time accrued” is the devil when it comes to taking time off from work. In fact, just the other day me and a colleague found ourselves looking around at empty cubicles of all the 40-something-year-old employees who were out on a vacations because after working for 10+ years, they finally accrued vacation time at a rate where they could take an entire week off. I learned about the “PTO shuffle” the hard way in a position I held at a parenting education non-profit for about five years. My second year I started at the organization full-time after working a year as an independent contractor where I was paid on an hourly basis with no benefits such as health insurance or vacation time. When I started full-time, I felt like I had reached the professional promise land landing my first gig where I would have paid time off. At twenty-something, being able to take a Monday where I could start my morning with a bath bomb and a Jhene playlist and then literally become an appendage to my living room couch and STILL get paid made me feel like an official adult that finally made something of herself.
Unfortunately after I had been working a few months in that position, that winter my asthma decided that my hospital would be my second home for a few months and few flare ups sent me on multiple trips to the ER where I was sent home with plenty of prednisone and liquid albuterol to help my lungs get it together so I’d have enough strength to walk from my front door to the car. Seriously, before I got my asthma under control, walks from my office to the bathroom (which was literally the length of the whole building away) made me question was I capable of even performing at work.
During that time I learned the difference between paid vacation and PTO. At this job the PTO policy was that all days were grouped together, both sick and vacation, meaning as long as you had accrued the time you could request time off for a specific date or use that time to call out sick or for any other personal purposes. So if you don’t know how this story ends I basically blew through most of the time I had accrued trying to make my lungs function before I had the chance to enjoy any kind of vacation. And this my friends is where the beauty in the distinction between sick, personal and vacation days lies. Because for those of us that don’t have flexible schedules or can’t telecommute the fact of the matter is that sick days are really something most people don’t want to have. I shouldn’t have to pull from a vague pool of time off because tree pollen is plotting on the downfall of my lungs or if I had some bad fish tacos that have forced me to be BFF’s with the toilet. Sick days are for when you’re sick and vacation days are when you actually want to enjoy a day off.
A web developer from a Michigan-based company called Olark Live Chat sparked some conversation on social media earlier this week about taking time off and quantity verses quality. When Madalyn Parker was honest about taking a day off not because of bad fish tacos or some other lame excuse contrived that sounds better than, “I don’t feel like dealing with the damn office today,” her CEO sent her a response that many of us would probably be relieved to receive. Parker sent an e-mail to her team with, “Where’s Madalyn?” in the subject line, followed by a message that read:
“I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.”
But what helped this exchange go viral was CEO’s Ben Congleton’s response, a reply that many of us would be quite surprised to see from our supervisors:
“I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this.”
“Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health — I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
I know that’s right, Mr. Congleton. Do you know how many Monday mornings I’ve laid in bed on a doing some creative math after hitting the snooze button three times? “If I call out today it will take my approximately two pay periods to get those hours back. Should I save this time for a snow day? What if the baby gets sick and I don’t have the time to take? Oh well, F it. Don’t pay me then. But I’m going off three hours of sleep and if Rita in Finance comes by clicking that goddamn pen, I’m going to lose my s**t, right along with this damn job.” In the end I usually end up texting my supervisor that I “can’t adult today” under the guise of, “I have a headache,” or “My throat is extremely sore and I’m stuffy.” Then I spend the rest of the day feeling guilty and over-analyzing what my supervisor’s “OK, we’ll talk,” reply really means, which actually ends up defeating the whole purpose of my mental health day.
Parker and Congleton’s exchange was met with both co-signs and confusion as Twitter users debated how much mental health days need to become common practice in the workplace and other’s simply didn’t get the big deal:
But *vacations* are for mental health too. So then really what's difference btwn sick leave & vacation leave? Could be just 1 leave policy
— Andrew Cohen (@acohenNY) July 1, 2017
Well, here’s the damn difference Mr. Cohen. Putting a request in to my supervisor in February to be on a Greek Island in late October of 2018 is a lot different than attempting to face a work day after getting three hours of sleep because my two-year-old spent half the night breaking down because I wouldn’t let her stuff her shoes in the Diaper Genie. I’ve seen people fight to come to work through everything from a hangover and to finding their husband cheating that morning. What this situation sheds light on is if having a body behind a computer is really better than having an employee’s whose head is in the game too? And truth be told, a broken heart can hurt just as much as a bad asthma flare-up. That’s why I like the idea of having personal days at my present 9-5, which each employee is granted 3 a year in addition to the hours they accrue in sick time. Management also makes the effort to check in with staff to let them know they are there if folks need to process feelings or are struggling through difficult times. For example, the day after our current U.S. president was elected, management held a meeting so folks could express their feelings and were totally understanding if folks were simply “unable to can” that day as we worried over the fate of the country. Non-profit pay may not be the best but I must say the heavy emphasis on self-care is a perk. Because sometimes not wanting to be at work is just as simple as you don’t feel like it, and not necessarily some carefully crafted excuse that involves a bathroom or bed rest. And also because sometimes you just want to text your supervisor that you need to get your head together, without reliving the graphic details of finding your husband’s head in between the neighbor’s legs.
In 2015, 658 million vacation days were forfeited by American workers, averaging out to about 2 days per employee. Why are folks feeling like their shackled to their desktops? Some of the reasons include employees feeling like there is no one to cover their duties while there are away. Some feel as if they’ll have to deal with negative feedback from a supervisor upon their return and others are worried about keeping their jobs altogether. Fortunately, more and more companies are focusing on the quality of employees and their work and the importance of investing in them more than their bottom line. In addition many employers are working to create a culture where employees feel like rest, leisure and time off are essential to their productivity and quality of work without feeling like they’re doing their employer a disservice by using time off they’ve earned.
What’s your employer’s take on “mental health days”?
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.