Supporting Mental Health With a Week Off Isn’t Enough

With World Mental Health Day approaching, its time to re-consider how a mandated week off is supporting employee mental wellbeing and what else can be done to address the root causes of stress and burnout.

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There’s a trend with companies shutting down operations for a week to allow employees to focus on their mental health. With World Mental Health Day coming up this weekend, I’m compelled to share what may be an unpopular opinion: these company shut downs don’t actually do much to address mental health. 

Sure, a paid week off is always appreciated. I’ve certainly encouraged department-wide shut downs in the past when needed. But this doesn’t actually address the underlying need for the time off – burnout. In fact, forced time off may even contribute to more burnout. Think about it, when you’re about to leave on vacation, the week before you leave is always chaotic because you’re running up against a deadline to move your work forward before you leave. It’s always stressful. The truth is, employer-mandated mental health weeks aren’t enough and more needs to be done to support mental wellbeing. 

I’m not saying time off when needed is useless. But employers should do more to address mental health before it becomes an issue. Employees need to be given the right tools to help them figure out their limits so they know when to ask for help. For example, access to mental health coaches who can help employees figure out their triggers and how to relax and reset or access to mental health apps such as Calm or Headspace, which can be helpful tools for employees to just be more mindful.

However, what’s needed most is a change in culture and overall acknowledgement of the importance of mental health. This has to come from the top so that employees feel safe enough to ask for help or a day or week off when they need it. One way to approach this is to emphasize personal responsibility for mental health and modeling vulnerability. For example, leaders can admit to their teams that for whatever reason, they are not in the right headspace to be productive and need to take, not a sick day but rather, a “sad day” or a “stressed day” or an “anxious day.” By modeling vulnerability and taking responsibility for your mental health, leaders give employees permission to do the same. Otherwise, if they tell employees that they’re having a bad day but they’re working through it, that signals an expectation for employees to keep pushing through as well. 

While emphasizing personal responsibility, culture change also happens when leaders are engaged and know employees as humans first. Frequent check-ins and learning employee triggers and limits can allow leaders to grant time off proactively or otherwise take steps to mitigate problems while building trust with employees. For example, I once granted extended leave for an employee due to mental health concerns. But for this employee, it wasn’t just about needing time off, it was about addressing a deeper problem. They were an excellent employee but we realized the nature of their job at the time was too much for this individual. During their leave, a position opened up in a different department altogether and I knew this would be a more appropriate job for this individual. We found them a new role in the company where they continue to thrive and by doing so, we built a safe foundation for this employee and have earned their loyalty and trust. 

Again, it’s about making employees feel safe and valued that will empower them to take steps to maintain their mental wellness. We can only take these steps by truly knowing our employees, which helps us better support them the way they individually need – whether that means granting a day, a week, or a month off, or it means finding them a more suitable job somewhere else in the organization. 

With an increased awareness of mental health and its importance in the workplace, we have a responsibility as leaders to support our employees’ mental health. Historically, we’ve fallen short of this task and, while forced time off is a step in the right direction, there are many more steps we can take as leaders to promote mental wellness. 

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