Should Mental Health Days Be Separate From Vacation Days?

Mental health days are not only necessary, but they’re also essential to an employee’s well-being. Here’s how to navigate this in your company.

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Should Mental Health Days Be Separate from Vacation Days?

Here's what you need to know:

  • Mental health days are critical times for self-care to prevent burnout or to deal with real underlying mental health conditions
  • Employees should be able to use sick time or another form of paid leave to ensure that they can get the care they need without taking away from their available vacation time
  • The Department of Labor announced in 2022 that some mental health problems qualified as serious health conditions under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  • It may be necessary to introduce a gradient curve that treats different mental health needs individually
  • It’s important for employers to take active steps to support their employees’ holistic health

Vacation time, sick time, personal days — it seems like employees have no shortage of options when it comes to taking time off work. However, what about mental health days? Should those fall under vacation time? Should organizations count it toward an employee’s use of sick time instead?

More organizations than ever before are focusing on the importance of mental health, as it should be. However, it’s challenging to determine where that time falls in the hierarchy of employee benefits.

And make no mistake — it’s about more than just coming up with the right designation. It’s about finding a balance that ensures employees can take time to care for their mental health without impinging on their vacation or other needs.

Are mental health days truly necessary for workers?

The short answer to the question posed above is a resounding “yes.” Mental health days are not only necessary, but they’re also essential to an employee’s continued well-being.

According to Dr. Ashley Hampton in an article for Healthline, “If you feel overwhelmed, stressed, have trouble focusing or concentrating on work or at home or are more irritable, then you may want to consider taking a mental health day.”

Mental health days are essential considerations

In the not-so-distant past, taking a mental health day was often code for playing hooky from work, or for taking time off because you just “didn’t feel like going in.” They were portrayed that way in popular culture, including hit TV sitcoms, for many years.

The problem is that this stereotype is incredibly damaging. Mental health days are critical times for self-care to prevent burnout or to deal with real underlying mental health conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder, and so much more.

Mental health days are not punchlines to jokes. They are essential considerations for ensuring an organization’s employees can care for themselves as needed.

Who needs mental health days?

Anyone could need to take a mental health day from time to time, or even more frequently. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a branch of the NIH, 1 in 5 adults in the US suffers from some type of mental illness. That means 52.9 million Americans are dealing with a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder.

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Are mental health days just to prevent burnout?

Burnout is a legitimate mental health concern, and it should not be downplayed. As employees burn out, their productivity declines, engagement falls, communication stagnates, and both employees and their employers suffer.

As the situation progresses, burnout can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, anxiety, and even depression in employees.

What causes burnout? According to Harvard Business Review, some of the most common causes of burnout include:

  • An excessive workload
  • Perceived lack of control on the employee’s part
  • Lack of intrinsic or extrinsic rewards that match the time and effort put in
  • A lack of community to offer support
  • A lack of fairness and recognition from leaders/managers
  • A mismatch in values between the employee and the company

However, despite the many causes and dangerous outcomes of burnout, it is far from the only reason to take a mental health day.

Numerous other reasons exist, all related to an individual’s specific mental or emotional health, including depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, post-partum depression, psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, mood disorders, and more.

How to codify mental health days at your company

With a better understanding of what mental health days are and why they are crucial, it becomes even more important to determine how to account for them within an organization’s HR department and employee time tracking system.

Should they simply count against an employee’s vacation time? Or, should they be counted toward sick time or personal time?

Should mental health days count as vacation days?

Many organizations choose to count mental health days toward an employee’s allotted amount of vacation time. However, this might be the wrong path to take.

Vacation time, whether that’s a traditional 1-week trip to a different destination, a couple of days spent relaxing at home, or something else, should be a time for rest and relaxation.

Many organizations choose to count mental health days toward an employee’s allotted amount of vacation time. However, this might be the wrong path to take.

The problem here is that conflating mental health days with vacation time perpetuates the myth that all someone needs here is some time away from the office. The truth is very different. Often, these are individuals in crisis who need specialized care to recover.

In that sense, this time off is more like sick time than vacation time. However, there is a spectrum here and some employees may only need time to cope with stress to improve their job performance and productivity. It may be necessary to introduce a gradient curve that treats different mental health needs individually.

For instance, the Department of Labor announced in 2022 that some mental health problems qualified as serious health conditions under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The FMLA guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for eligible employees. So, employers could account for anxiety, depression, and other very serious conditions in this way.

However, that leaves workers unpaid. This means that many will be less likely to take the time they need because they simply cannot afford time without pay.

Another option is to use paid sick time for employees

Another option is to use paid sick time, because most, if not all, state and local paid sick time laws cover both mental and physical health conditions, according to Bloomberg.

Organizations will need to define what constitutes a mental health condition and what is classified as an occupational phenomenon. For instance, burnout would fall under the latter category in most cases, while depression (even if it originated from burnout) would fall under the former category.

What is clear is that employees should not be required to use their vacation time to recover from mental health issues. Whether it’s burnout or anxiety, suicidal ideation or PTSD, employees should be able to use sick time or another form of paid leave to ensure that they can get the care they need without taking away from their available vacation time.

After all, time away from work is an important support for mental health and for improving productivity, employee efficiency, and engagement. Employers should look at paid vacation time as an investment in building better employees, and mental health days as no different from days required for physical/traditional medical care.

Mental health days are more than the “perks” of the job

It’s also important that employers send a message to employees that mental health days, however they’re accounted for in the human resource information system (HRIS), are more than just “perks” for being employed there.

More and more, employees expect their employers to see them as whole persons with important physical, mental, and emotional health-related needs. Mental health days are not just “extra time off.” They are critical periods for healing and care that employees need so they can thrive.

The bottom line when it comes to mental health days

Ultimately, the question of how to account for mental health days is more important than it might look at first glance. It’s not just determining how to quantify an employee perk in the time and attendance system.

It’s about setting the right tone. It’s important to convey to both current employees and prospective new hires that the organization sees their spectrum of needs and is taking active steps to support their holistic health.

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