By Katie McEvinney
We have all had those days. We feel battered and bruised. Exhausted, deflated, isolated and just generally low. The thought of work, or university, or college, is excoriating and all we need is some time at home. To refuel, to relax, to mend. These days are called Mental Health Days and can greatly improve your work-life balance, and overall happiness. These days offer solace for everyone – whether you are overstressed, feeling low or suffer from a diagnosed mental health condition. Self-care is becoming increasingly important at university as more students than ever face mental health problems with support not always readily available.
A recent survey reported in 2016 by The Guardian found that 78% of students admitted having had a mental health problem over the past year, and 33% had suicidal thoughts. Moreover, it seems that support and help for the student demographic, as well as the population as a whole, is failing to adequately care for mental health. “Mental health services in the UK are overstretched, have long waiting times and, in some regions, lack specialist services. Despite this, public spending is focused almost entirely on coping with crisis, with only a significant investment in prevention. Mental health research receives only 5.5% (£115m) of total UK health research spending:” explains The Mental Health Foundation.
Unfortunately, despite these shortcomings, we are a long way off from having self-care and Mental Health Days recognised and protected on the same level as time off when you are physically unwell. Although some laws exist, and it is entirely illegal for employees to discriminate in relation to mental health conditions, the rules and your rights are mostly confused and under-explained. Furthermore, negative attitudes continue to exist. Levo, a careers advice service, wrote an article: ‘5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Take a Day Off Work – Unless You’re Truly Sick’ and undermined the importance of mental health in the workplace in less than 500 words. The article explains: “Taking a day off work for a “mental health day” is definitely no excuse for you to miss work. Even if you plan on using time at home to tackle that workload, you still cannot make up for that lost time in the office. Save yourself wasted time and force yourself to go to work, even when you really do not want to.” This attitude, of looking at mental health as laziness, or as a ‘choice’ that people can simply decide against having, is detrimental to our progress in understanding these illnesses and supporting those who need help.
And it is not just advice services trying to warn against Mental Health Days, but it seems employees themselves feel differently towards their own mental health than their physical needs. The Independent reported in 2015 that: “…Feeling stressed or depressed seems to earn far less sympathy, both from workers and from bosses. The study suggests you might just be expected to grin and bear it. Only 17% thought mental health issues were a valid reason for sick leave – only slightly more than the percentage who would call in sick only if they had to go to the hospital.” It seems that there is a long way to go in trying to make mental health rights as widely supported as physical health. Despite time off for physical ailments being more widely accepted, “…mental health problems constitute the largest single source of world economic burden, with an estimated global cost of £1.6 trillion – greater than cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, cancer and diabetes on their own,” says the Mental Health Foundation.
The ironic thing is that although bosses may be reluctant to encourage Mental Health Days as a result of fears over absenteeism and lost production time, those who feel mentally satisfied are actually more productive at work and in education too. The key lesson is that mentally rested workers are the most productive workers. According to research from professional services firm Towers Watson, “Employees suffering from high stress levels have lower engagement, are less productive and have higher absenteeism levels than those not working under excessive pressure.” Furthermore, the Global Benefits Attitudes survey found that, “levels of workplace disengagement significantly increase when employees experience high levels of stress. The study of 22,347 employees across 12 countries including the UK and US, revealed that over half of those employees claiming to be experiencing high stress levels reported they were disengaged. By contrast, only one in ten employees claiming low stress levels reported they were disengaged and half of this group claimed to be highly engaged. The proportion of employees claiming high levels of workplace stress was 30% in the US, slightly lower than 34% in the UK.”
When talking to students regarding Mental Health Days, the reaction was positive. Stefanie, a student nurse studying in Glasgow, explained: “I think mental health should be viewed in exactly the same way as physical health. Therefore, if you are feeling unwell mentally, you should be entitled to time off. It actually makes you more productive and motivated in the long run. I think in Glasgow there is a real ‘close the curtains’ attitude and people feel embarrassed to admit they are struggling when they shouldn’t be. I wouldn’t advise making mental health days off a regular thing though, because sometimes staying at home can actually make you feel more isolated. There are student counselling services which can really help.”
Strathclyde student counselling here.