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Just take the mental health day

Nici Berman used to worry that using a sick day for her mental health would lead to her being cast as incompetent by her boss and coworkers.

The 25-year-old social worker, from Vaucluse in Sydney, says her job – which involves helping domestic violence survivors and people with serious mental illness – can be emotionally taxing, but she wanted to prove she could handle the work.

“I wanted to show [my team] I was resilient and strong, and I put on a brave face,” Berman says.

“I then remember speaking to a colleague who said, ‘You need to take care of yourself … You can’t help other people or do your job if you don’t help yourself’.”

So, at the start of 2020, she took her first mental health day, and has had several more since. Berman uses the time to reflect on what led her to become overwhelmed and formulate steps to avoid reaching that point. She tends to start the day with a big walk to clear her head, stays off social media and does some journaling.

Berman isn’t alone, with new research suggesting there is a marked increase in workers – particularly young employees – taking a mental health day since the pandemic.

Finance company Finder surveyed 650 Australian workers and found more than a third had used sick leave for their mental health in the last 12 months. In 2018, only 16 per cent had done so.

Finder’s editor-at-large Kate Browne puts the rise down to both raised awareness of mental health issues and the toll of the pandemic.

Beyond Blue lead clinical adviser Dr Grant Blashki, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, says many Australians have been dealing with a “triple whammy” of personal, work, and family or relationship stress, exacerbated by the pandemic.

A recent report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that in June 2021, one in five Australians had high or very high psychological distress. Among people aged 18-34 it was one in three.

To top it off, Blashki points out burnt-out workers are booking less annual leave because of travel restrictions, so a day off for mental wellbeing may be even more needed.

The Finder survey found Gen Z workers were the most likely generation to take a mental health day, at 48 per cent, compared to 41 per cent of Millennials, 28 per cent of Gen X and 13 per cent of Baby Boomers. The survey also found that women were more likely than men.

Blashki isn’t surprised. He says the past 18 months have hit young people hard, from job prospects to losing social freedoms at a key time of their life, while women are taking on the lion’s share of childcare and domestic duties.

Mental illness also remains more shrouded in stigma among men and older Australians.

“We’ve seen a generational shift in willingness to talk about mental health,” Blashki says.

Nici Berman says Gen Z has grown up with mental health being taught in schools, and subscribes to a “call-out culture” that is determined to tear down taboos. “I think we don’t ignore mental illness, we go and seek help … and not see that as a weak thing, but as courageous.”

Berman – who started an Instagram account last year aimed at helping women’s mental health – says social media also plays a big role because it normalises sharing personal experiences.

Employers, too, are learning the importance of investing in a mentally healthy and supportive workplace – particularly during COVID-19 – which also translates to greater economic and social outcomes, Blashki says. Analysis has found that workplaces receive a return of $2.30 for every dollar spent on mental health action.

One business treating this as a priority is Melbourne-based food ordering startup Mr Yum. The company’s head of people, Laura Sloane, says it has a no-questions-asked approach to mental health days for its 90 staff, and it’s signing on with Frankie, a proactive mental wellbeing platform that provides each employee a tailored “care journey”.

Dr Grant Blashki’s advice for taking a mental health day during COVID-19
– Switch off from work properly. Turn off your emails, shut down your laptop and make sure any work-related notifications are off. If you have a work phone, put it on airplane mode.
– Plan some self-care. Consider a mix of relaxing behaviours like walking, reading or watching a movie, and productive ones such as organising medical appointments, personal grooming and sorting finances.
– Take a break from the news. Don’t consume COVID-19 updates all day. It’s not good for your mind.

“[More] people are feeling like you can be open and transparent and honest with your manager … without feeling like it’s going to be to your detriment,” Sloane says.

Still, for all our society’s progress, many workers continue to conceal from their bosses when they are using sick leave for mental health. While Blashki hopes all employers strive to improve their culture, he encourages workers to use their judgment.

“Some workplaces can be pretty brutal and you might decide it’s not a good idea to say [you’re having a mental health day], that it might affect a promotion or perception,” Blashki says.

“In a perfect world every employer would be enlightened and infinitely supportive of their staff, but we know that [many] are under enormous pressure at the moment.”

Blashki says the signs that you may need a mental health day include finding you can’t stop thinking about work, poor sleep, feeling less sharp or productive at work, and being on your email a lot after-hours.

“When people are a bit burnt out their concentration and performance deteriorates,” Blashki says. “All of us need to take a bit of a break sometimes, but don’t forget to book in annual leave too.”