What’s the real reason why you called in sick?
I spoke to a colleague at work recently who has been more open with me about her own mental health struggles. She suffers from anxiety and told me that she is frustrated that she doesn't feel able to speak up and say when she is having a bad day. She told me that she had previously called in sick, when in fact she was struggling with her anxiety. It made me think about my own experiences and I related so much.
I was a mess, but felt incredibly guilty for letting my team down
How many people do you know who have done the same? Probably none, but that doesn't mean you don't know them, it just means you don't know the REAL reason why they have called in sick. Just before Christmas, I had my own mini-meltdown when I just couldn't come into work. I didn't have a cold or the flu or even a stomach upset, but my head was hurting. I was overwhelmed, tired and in need of a break. I couldn't stop crying and was a mess. I called my boss and told her the truth, but I had a huge amount of guilt that I wasn't 'tough enough' to power through. The same guilt wouldn't have been so prevalent if I had called in sick with any of the physical symptoms above, so why was it different when the pain was related to my mental wellbeing?
As much as I am hopeful that things are slowly improving, we are still so far from mental health being valued in the same way as physical health. Discrimination and stigma is a huge barrier for many. That, and the fear of having your career progression being thrown out the window, means many are still hiding the truth.
I asked my colleague why she felt unable to tell her boss the truth
When Olivia’s anxiety hits her head on, she often struggles to make into work, but is too afraid to of the repercussions to ask for a day off. This is what she said…
"Well for me personally I suppose it's a combination of 1) people won't take it seriously/think it's a good enough reason and 2) managers will think it's something that makes me less competent/reliable so won't want to use me in future or recommend me for other things because she might "have a funny turn and not come in". Of course, that's me assuming people won't be understanding but unfortunately you can't rely on people to be. And I do get that you would be annoyed at someone calling in sick but it's just that difference between saying "I've got a stomach bug so can't come in" which they know physically means you can't and them not taking the mental thing seriously. Because if you did have to explain it to them, it does make you seem less stable as a person, but in reality, it has nothing to do with your capabilities on the job. Me being honest and saying "I can't come in today because I've been up all night having anxiety attacks and right now my mood is so low I honestly feel like a zombie" might be the truth, but it doesn't feel like something that would be taken seriously, or if it was, could impact on my job if you know what I mean."
Ashamed to go speak up.
I have spoken to more colleagues - senior ones who are struggling with stress and pressures in the office. All our conversations have come with the caveat of "please keep this confidential." It doesn't surprise me; many are still too ashamed and worried about their careers to go public. Even I still struggle massively to ask for a 'day off' because I need a breather to recover - I feel as though I ‘owe’ my team for all the support they’ve given me in the past (and this is despite me openly sharing my story on the intranet and with many of my colleagues). The thing is, mental health operates inside AND outside of office hours. It’s not a 9-5 job, and considering we spend most of our time at work, it's crazy that we don't invest more in making our working environments a happier place to be.
In 2017 mental health problems in the UK workforce cost employers £35 billion
It seems crazy to me given that mental ill health costs employers in the UK more than £30 billion every year through lost production, recruitment and absence*. It doesn't make sense for organisations to put up barriers for their staff to be open, given that they are more likely to perform better, and have a higher attendance record. Additionally, taking steps to better support the mental health of staff can help to reduce the severity, duration and quantity of mental ill health in the workplace.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor from Stanford University is well worth looking up – he has written extensively about the impact of employee health and company performance. In his book, ‘Dying for a Paycheck,’ he makes clear that the environment we work in is just as important as the one we live in, and argues that factors such as long work hours, work-family conflict, and economic insecurity are “toxic to employees—hurting engagement, increasing turnover, and destroying people’s physical and emotional health.”
Are workplace wellbeing programmes the answer?
So how can companies create a healthier workplace? Well I don’t think it is about offering employees more yoga classes, sleeping pods, games rooms or unlimited free food. These are welcomed luxuries for most of us, but they mean very little to the mum who is juggling long hours with childcare, or the employee who is constantly anxious about job security. Workplace wellbeing programmes are beginning to filter through, but I am not entirely sure they are very helpful. What would be more effective is if organisations took a preventative approach, and created an environment built with employee’s basic needs at its core. There are small things employers can do to ensure the physical environment is comfortable, by providing access to daylight, a quiet space, and adequate lighting and heating. They can reduce the crazy long hours that are expected, the guilt associated with taking a lunch break away from your desk, and increase motivation and productivity by rewarding employees both emotionally and financially.
Senior leaders need to step up
What we really, REALLY, need though, is managers and CEO’s to share their experiences and normalise the conversation. I don’t believe that senior leaders are immune to mental ill health, so why are there so few of them willing to openly share? We know why, for the same reasons as my colleagues told me; fear of being weak. Alongside this, I believe the language, narrative and images used to illustrate mental ill health need to change. Some of the most energetic, dynamic and creative people I know have experienced serious mental health issues, yet the generic pictures we see of people with their heads in their hands are far from aspirational. I long for the day when companies truly encourage employees to talk about their mental ill health. More than that though, I look forward to the day when the fear of being penalised for something that we all have, is no longer tolerated.
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