How managers can encourage mental health days

·6 min read

While we’ve done a lot to collectively raise awareness of the importance of mental health, we’ve still got a ways to go in the workplace. One report finds that 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress, with a quarter saying their job is their top stressor. In another study, 60% of global employees named their job as the biggest factor influencing their mental health. Managers have as great an impact on employees’ mental health as their spouses, and even more of an impact than their doctors or therapists.

Mental health days can be one tool in combating stress. But many workers find barriers when it comes to actually taking them: For one, nearly two-thirds of employees say they don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health to anyone at work, let alone their manager. While mental health days are no cure-all for burnout, a culture that allows teams to openly take time off for a wellness break can reduce presenteeism and rising stress (along with its risks). Here’s how managers can encourage their team to take mental health days when they need to.

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Learn to identify the signs of burnout, especially for people in stress-prone positions

Consciously creating a positive culture around mental health helps to reduce stigma and lets employees know how to access the support they need. “It’s essential to inform team members about mental health topics, provide knowledge on how to identify signs of distress and ask for support or additional days off,” says Nataliia Zhurba, director of human resources at legal database Lawrina.

As a manager, this may look like taking additional training courses to help you spot burnout in employees, providing resources related to mental health leave where necessary, and updating paid time off and sick policies to include mental health days and mental health leave.

Managers can also use the resources made available to them within their organization to provide additional support to those who need it. “We are also considering keeping an eye on stress-prone positions like client support managers and team leads—as they have more responsibility and are more likely not to cope with their burden—by organizing a once-per-month meeting with a psychologist,” says Zhurba. Many companies are even hiring for new roles designed to directly improve employee well-being and reduce stress within the workplace.

Create—and codify—a ‘no questions asked’ policy

No matter how much support you give your team members within the workplace, sometimes outside factors mean they need to take a day off to rest and recharge. Trusting your employees to take this time when they need it lets them know that you trust and respect them, and can help them to feel empowered.

One way to do this is to create a ‘no questions asked’ policy when it comes to mental health days. This can create feelings of safety within the workplace. Ideally, such policies should be somewhere in writing so that your employees can access them easily. Matthew Miller, editor in chief at freelance marketplace Toptal, uses this policy to manage his team.

“Most mental health paid time off needs are deeply personal, and it discourages people from taking time off when they feel they will be asked to justify why they need it,” he says. “Our team members know that when they need time to recharge or deal with something personal, [I] will 100% support and encourage them to take that time. We can figure out the work part of the equation while they focus on their personal needs.”

Being open in the workplace and accepting that the challenges employees face at home impact their work (and vice versa) helps managers encourage mutual support. “Approaching work-life as a continuum takes the pressure off of my team—and me—to be inauthentic when times are tough. It brings us closer together. Everyone steps up when one of us is struggling,” says Miller.

Lead by example

No matter how much you tell people that they should prioritize their mental health, they’re unlikely to take you seriously if they notice you’re checking in on your days off and firing off emails in the middle of the night.

“Toxic work cultures, which prioritize productivity at the expense of individuals’ personal wellbeing, are deeply entrenched, and paying lip service to mental well-being alone isn’t enough to change that,” says Sancar Sahin, co-founder of employee mental health platform Oliva.

To lead by example and encourage team members to prioritize their mental health, Sancar suggests that leaders should set their Slack status to away and restrain from sending emails outside of others’ working hours. “I also find that being open about my own experience of burnout helps the wider team feel able to speak up if they’re struggling with their own mental health,” he says.

Oliva allows its employees to take time off for any issues that impact their well-being, including low mood and menstruation. In addition, leaders encourage their teams to talk things through with one of the specialist therapists within the organization. “The team knows that I’d do exactly the same if I needed to,” says Sancar.

Build trust with an authentic interest in the people on your team

Taking an authentic interest in the people on your team lets them know that you see them as whole individuals with a life outside of work, not just as employees.

Linda Ho, chief people officer at the sales program Seismic, suggests asking team members about their workload, their work relationships, and their development goals during one-on-one meetings.

“By taking an authentic interest in the other person, you’ll build trust and psychological safety, and allow your team to open up about their symptoms and causes of burnout,” she says. “Strong relationships built on trust, vulnerability, open dialogue, and empowerment can often be a prevention to burnout, as the issues are addressed before it manifests into more physical and longer-lasting symptoms.”

Using your influence as a manager to build a positive culture around mental health in your workplace can do wonders when it comes to boosting employee engagement, satisfaction, and company culture.

Encouraging your employees to take mental health days when they need to is one of the most effective ways to let people know that you trust them, that you value their contributions, and that their well-being is your top priority.

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