I felt something bad and took the day off. Am I an (old) snowflake?
Last week I had a day when I couldn’t work. Not physically, but I sat with my laptop in front of me and couldn’t engage my brain. I felt sad, and lethargic, and de-motivated in a debilitating way I haven’t felt before.
It was weird. Largely because I didn’t know why it was happening. I sat there feeling as though I could cry, without any logical reason for it. As far as my rational brain could work out.
I started to wonder if I was a snowflake. An odd thought, but I’ve noticed the term being used increasingly in mainstream media in a derogatory way to describe a person or generation labelled as “overly sensitive, overly emotional or easily offended”. An unhelpful, arguably ignorant label from the generation above… but unfortunately memorable.
In deciding what to do at that point, it struck me that there was nobody else I had to involve. I’m self employed, and ultimately the master of my own time. But even I was struggling to justify to myself that I couldn’t work because I didn’t ‘feel’ like it.
I thought back to being employed, and wondered how I would have dealt with that situation having a boss. Could I ever take a day off for something I couldn’t easily quantify, explain or show to someone? The question is a big one for employers, and humans.
The term has a stigma to it, there’s no getting away from it. Often associated with a poor work ethic, regardless of legitimacy the term “throw a sickie” is dismissive of potential serious health concerns. I’ll admit to feeling the same, and have previously battled through minor illness to avoid association with the term. Maybe to my detriment, who knows.
So when I didn’t work last Wednesday, was that a “Sick” day?
Was I ill? — No.
Was I contagious? — No.
Was I physically unable to work? — Not really.
But mentally I wasn’t able to concentrate or focus on doing any of what I needed to do. Even the smallest task. Literally, with a big sigh (and a small cry), I closed my laptop.
Happily I didn’t have an awkward phone call at that point to explain myself at work. Would I really have been honest and shared all? I can pretty confidently say not, especially given my (arguably unfair) negative perception of ‘sick’ days in general. But taking that day to think about how I was feeling, explore possible reasons why, and work on some solutions meant that I woke up on Thursday in a completely different place. Unquestionably the best time I have spent in a long time.
So do employers today really understand mental health?
Apparently, yes. In one study this year, 75% of business owners cited mental health as an ‘acceptable reason to call in sick’. Interestingly, that’s up from a lowly 17% in a 2015 study, which despite the fact I don’t agree with the classification as ‘sick’, feels like good progress.
This is backed up by the swathe of companies offering coaching services or similar mental health related benefits to employees, usually promoted via recruitment efforts and employer branding.
In fact, reports by ACAS put the cost of failed mental health support — that’s lost productivity, absence and recruitment — at £30bn annually. So it’s likely that even the most rational of employers will start to pay attention if not already.
But people still don’t feel able to talk about it.
A study by mind.org states that 1 in 5 employees felt they couldn’t even tell their manager if they were feeling stressed. This is basic stuff, suggesting that organisations are falling short of providing an environment and culture that supports mental health even in early warning stages.
Escalate this to the point where employees are feeling pressure enough to need time off, and 40% of people stated feeling uncomfortable taking days off for mental health reasons. The pressure continues even after the point of mental health diagnoses, where less than half of people eventually diagnosed with a mental health condition had told their manager.
So ‘acceptable reason’ or not, the numbers don’t suggest that people perceive their employers to be supportive of mental health, to the point most conceal symptoms, struggles, and diagnoses. Even if I put the numbers aside and consider where I’ve worked in the past, I honestly can’t say I’ve ever felt able or willing to share my own mental health management with anyone at work — leaders, peers or otherwise. It feels vulnerable, and possibly career limiting.
The logical conclusion then; 50% of millennials, and 75% of Gen-Z’ers (excuse the boxes) have left their jobs citing mental health reasons. And it’s pretty unlikely those circumstances for leaving can ever be cited as positive or developmental in any way — at worst, it’ll create resentment towards the company, and potentially more serious consequences for the individual.
What should companies do, then?
Something. Anything. I’m not so sure on the how, but here are a few things I think proactive companies ought to be considering in the field of supporting mental health in the workplace:
Make it ‘a thing’. Just talk about it openly, and visibly in companywide situations. Normalise the conversation. Interestingly, younger people are leaving jobs due to mental health reasons (50–70%), but only 10% of the older generation would say the same. That’s either an awareness, or at worst an acceptance topic — but nonetheless, companies with diverse age ranges need to open the door on the topic for awareness and acceptance.
Make it tangible, by doing things. Mental health is an ethereal concept to some, unlike physical health where you can kick off a company sports day or stick a basket of manky oranges on the end of desks. But introducing coaching, training leaders on helping employees overcome anxiety, or even just supporting mental health week with company wide initiatives — all of these actions demonstrate visible steps towards driving an inclusive and supportive culture around mental health.
Make it important. £30m lost each year through a failure to support mental health. It is important, and it’s costing companies. But it’s costing lives more importantly. Last year the suicide rate among young people rose by +24% in the UK. That number was +52% in Scotland. Making mental health important within the company goes beyond simply ‘accepting’ sick day calls (it’s too late by then), and requires more proactive commitment and investment. Offer employees a number of mental health management days to take. Provide ready access to coaching or support. Make mental health a critical engagement metric or a balanced scorecard KPI that sits right alongside revenue. Whatever ‘it’ is, it must be more than a gesture.
My company (just me) puts mental health in pole position.
Our office (my spare room) is a place where people feel able to talk openly about how they feel, are supported in understanding their emotions and responses, and given time to proactively manage their mental health before it gets to crisis point.
And that’s not because I’m an old snowflake. It’s not because I’ve got any employer branding to bolster. It’s because last week I took one day off and got control to take back the rest.
You do the business case.