Do Work-Sponsored "Mental Health Days" Make an Impact?

From the 1970s through the 1990s, the United States was seeing a disturbing uptick in the number of deaths caused by trucking accidents. At the peak, in 1979, more than 4,000 people died in one year due to accidents involving large commercial trucks. Comprehensive studies at the time -- and for almost every year since -- reveal that a major cause of these accidents was drowsiness. Long hours on the road was seriously hurting the health and safety of workers in commercial trucking.

To curb the problem, many states passed laws limiting the number of hours a trucker could drive in one day, mandating rest times between shifts. As a result, accidents declined; 2019 saw nearly half the fatalities that 1979 did. 

The required rest periods vastly improved employee safety, but the most recent numbers could still be better, which leaves two important questions about this type of company health and safety policy:

Why would lawmakers need to override the policies set by private companies, and why is drowsy driving still a notable cause of fatal accidents involving commercial truck drivers?

In this post, we pose those questions of the corporate world as a whole -- and examine the growing trend of offering “mental health” day as part of companies’ Paid Time Off benefits (and whether it has a justifiable effect on health in the workplace). For businesses looking to revamp their HR mental health policies, the insights in this post will be useful in guiding your decision.

Why should I offer employees work-sponsored mental health days?

So, why did lawmakers have to basically force trucking companies to take care of their drivers? 

U.S. workers are some of the most overworked in the world, with the majority working more than 40 hours per week. In the last 15 years, Americans have been taking less time off work. It’s not that the vacation days don’t exist -- it’s that people just aren’t taking them (often because they feel they can’t). Even when they do use those days, 41% of employees admit to checking their email (and even responding!) while on vacation. 

And when it comes to mental health time off work, most have meager benefits for life events (like parental leave or time off work family death).  

A recent McKinsey study shows that there’s a huge gap between employers and employees in understanding what it takes to support mental health as part of work wellness. While the majority of employers agree that HR mental health support is important in reducing employees’ work related injuries and illnesses, the action just isn’t there; a fraction of employers say they plan to expand their mental health benefits in any form.

That’s a problem, because 20% of the American workforce is currently living with a diagnosable mental illness -- and it’s hurting businesses as well as employees. Mental health greatly impacts employee productivity. Anxiety, depression, stress management, substance abuse, and social anxiety can affect people's ability to focus, remember, and connect with coworkers as a part of a cohesive team. This costs companies an estimated $193 billion per year in lost productivity, plus $201 billion a year companies pay out in mental health costs (far more expensive than even the most generous of workplace health promotion programs).

A great way to reduce these costs while also boosting productivity is to get ahead of mental health issues in the first place. Employers do bear a responsibility for this: 39% of American workers cited a heavy workload as their main cause of stress in life. To compound that, a significant portion of the workforce has reported reduced productivity at work because of problems in their personal lives. (Learn more from our ebook, “Five Facts About Mental Health at Work.”)

With the COVID-19 pandemic upping the stress, anxiety, and depression rates across the board for U.S. employees, it’s no wonder employers are rethinking workplace health promotion. (Download our guide to preparing for the five mental health challenges employees will face going back to work at the office.)

What are the benefits of mental health PTO days for employee wellbeing programs?

When we say “mental health PTO days” we are referring to days that are separate from the mental health provisions mandated for mental health under FMLA and ADA laws. “Mental health days” are days offered voluntarily to employees to provide mental and emotional breaks from the stressors of work -- separate from sick days, vacation days, and holidays. 

The origins of mental health days are credited to a UK-based PR agency (agencies are notorious for high rates of stress and worker burnout). Dubbed a “Duvet Day,” the perk allowed employees to call out of work without advanced notice, and without having to provide a reason.

The idea is new enough -- and varies from company to company -- there’s no quantitative data on the benefits, but the growing popularity of as-needed relaxation days may signal its effectiveness and appeal. SAP offers employees a paid mental health day, as well as Thompson Reuters, Google and Cisco. Even schools are doing it. 

Based on what we know about the measured benefits of taking time off, it’s likely that  offering work-sponsored mental health days could:

Align your brand with employee needs. A clear benefit of offering mental health days is that it reflects what your employees want: acknowledgement that our jobs consume much of our day-t0-day lives, and can’t be entirely separate from our personal struggles. 86% of employees want their employers to build a corporate culture that encourages an open dialogue about mental health, and 80% of employees would consider quitting their jobs for an employer more focused on employee mental health. Establishing mental health days as part of your benefits package could be effective in attracting (and retaining) top talent.

It increases motivation. When employees are burned out, they aren’t motivated. 40% of employees said they were fighting off burnout this past year. We already know that mental and physical rest is rejuvenating -- 93% of managers reported that taking timing off led to increased employee motivation

It improves productivity. If anything proved how mental health impacts productivity, it was the pandemic -- 75% of employees said that mental health challenges hurt their job performance during COVID. Stress derails our focus and memory while relaxation and time off leads to better memory, ability to focus, and boosts creativity. Taking days off work can give employees the mental break they need to stay productive at work. In fact, 84% of managers reported employees’ increased productivity after a break.  

Mental health days aren’t the only tool for improving mental performance -- watch our webinar on the five ways to improve employee focus at work.

How to make sure employees use their mental health days

Much like offering vacation days, offering Mental Health Days is only part of the equation if you want them to translate to gains.

In a Harvard Business Review article, the CEO of a small company talked about the effects of mandating employee use of vacation days. This approach, he felt, would remove the stigma of using vacation days and help employees get themselves out of the “busy trap.” What they found was, with a little tweaking to schedules, employees were much happier. By mandating time off, the CEO signaled “permission” and acceptance of taking time off.

In lieu of mandating days, you can always offer rewards. PwC is incentivising employees to take time off another way: employees get a $250 bonus if they take 40 consecutive hours of time off (as frequently as once per quarter) and receive $1,000 to use for vacation.

Not every employer can allocate that kind of budget to additional time off, but offering just one mental health day can have an impact if paired with four effective (and free) ways to get employees to take advantage -- and truly disconnect from work:

Address the unspoken stigma around discussing mental health at work. According to the earlier mentioned McKinsey survey, more than 75% of employers feel that there is a moderate to high level of stigma around the topic of mental health. The tone is set at the top, which is always felt by employees in some capacity. In another large survey, 55% of respondents said they feared “punishment” for taking days off to tend to their mental health. That’s why 32% of employees are using their vacation days to manage mental health challenges. From company-wide emails and events to one-on-one conversations, start creating a culture of acceptance and empathy when it comes to mental health issues like anxiety, stress, and depression. 

Communicate strategically. HR departments should make sure they have a plan in place that not only lets workers know about mental health days, but also gets them to take them.We typically encourage our clients to run "challenges" to get users engaged with the platform. One example is running a “stress challenge,” powered by push notifications and in-app messaging that communicates bits of information about the benefits of meditation and breathing exercises, for example. Some Total Brain clients post information on their intranets or create content for in-office TV screens that scroll information.Not only does these tactics communicate that the company now offers mental health days, but also educates employees on the importance of using them. 

Model behavior. Showing empathy and kindness as a leader pays dividends in the workplace. Encourage employees to use their mental health days by having managers do the same -- including staying off email! Over the years, Total Brain has found that companies have a better chance of success if they get (and demonstrate) buy-in from management. When managers take their mental health days, they should specify the type of PTO they’re taking (vs. calling in sick or using vacation days). When their employees follow suit, managers should make a point of not asking questions (like “What’s the issue?”), as it may be viewed as a challenge. A simple, friendly check-in after the employee returns (“Is there anything I can do to support you?”) can reduce any fears employees may have about retributions.

Measure results. We always follow up with our clients a year after roll out to see how their customized wellness plan is working and where the company can evolve its program for optimal effect. For mental health days, this can be as simple as a one or two question employee survey that gauges whether they used the benefit and felt it helped them. If you notice that employees didn’t use them, consider how you can improve adoption measures for the following year. For example, reminding employees of this benefit on a quarterly, rather than annual, basis may be the ticket. (Not sure what constitutes a highly healthy workplace? Download our guide to Creating a Healthy Work Environment to Boost Employee Productivity.)

65% of employees have anxiety about returning to the workplace after COVID, so now is a great time to start implementing a new and improved workplace wellness policy. Total Brain partners with companies to improve employee wellbeing and work toward unique company goals, whether it’s helping your employees to stay more focused or reducing workplace anxiety. 

Contact us for a demo and more information about how we can help you create a healthier, happier workforce. You can also stay on top of mental health trends in the workplace month by month when you sign up to receive our Mental Health Index reports.

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