Almost all my conversations over the past few weeks have been dominated by the return to work, mental health, and now discrimination. While the first topic is something that the world is working to solve on priority, the other two need systemic change over time with the commitment from a large number of players. For the purpose of this piece, I will restrict our conversation to mental health for heaven knows discussing discrimination needs a series of its own.
Numerous studies over the past few months have shown us that while the productivity of those who can work from home has not dropped significantly, a large number of employees are now feeling more burnt out than before. Conversations with multiple managers indicate that their teams are now demonstrating lower motivation, poor morale and are struggling to keep themselves going. Vacation claim days have drastically fallen which is understandable given that one can hardly step out. People are working longer hours, managing larger ambiguity than ever before, and facing heightened levels of anxiety and stress. It doesn’t take an oracle to know that while in the short run, work from home may seem like a brilliant idea, in the longer run, the verdict may not be as easy.
When Google asked employees to take a day off on May 22 to address work-from-home-related burnout during the coronavirus pandemic, my first reaction was to dismiss it as a PR stunt. After all how much difference can granting one day off make to employees? The more I thought about it, the more I recalled the lesson on grand gestures. By giving employees a day off, Google was openly acknowledging two things – (1) it was aware that employees are stressed and (2) it was ok to take time off if you do not feel ok. Google recognized that mental health was as important as physical health and opened the doors for deeper conversations on the subject. After all, everyone has a brain that needs to be cared for like the physical body.
However, is one grand gesture of giving a day off enough? Of course not! Is it a good start, definitely yes!
Organizations need managers to proactively look for opportunities to discuss mental health with employees. Managers need to let employees know that the topic is open for discussion and that it is ok to take time off. All-hands and team meetings are excellent avenues to discuss mental health, show employees that you understand, point them to resources available, and encourage them to take time off. Managers should not be counselors, therapists, or solution providers but rather point to the experts who are.
It isn’t the responsibility of managers alone. Organizations need to realize that taking time off to address mental health are not vacation days. Sick days need to cover both physical and mental health. Like any physical illness, pushing yourself to work when not feeling ok will make you feel worse the next day instead of better. That one day off is the difference between feeling a whole lot better and a whole lot worse.
Yet many organizations feel compelled to calculate the cost to the company in terms of short-sighted loss in productivity. This leads to mental health day-offs to be viewed with skepticism and fear of misuse. A quick look at sick day utilization demonstrates that just like vacation days, they are highly underutilized. Similarly, employees may use mental health day-offs or they may not. However, knowing that they exist makes a difference to those who need it. There will come a day when governments will pass legislation enforcing minimum mental health day-offs. Until then, organizations need to pave the way for governments to follow.
Offering mental health days also allows organizations to track which employee utilizes it often to enable them to proactively offer support. Often the hardest part of the journey is asking for professional help. In many countries, stigmas surrounding mental health continue to discourage seeking help. I recognize that mental health initiatives need employees to trust their employers. The organization needs to be very transparent about why and how they will be using the information (days off) data.
The importance of mental health is not a new discussion. However, it is becoming increasingly important for it to move from discussion to implementation. Employee assistance programs and mindfulness classes are now basics. It is time to take it a step forward and do more. The least you can do is institute mental health day-offs. Let’s call them the “Not OK” days.