I was first introduced to the concept of using sick leave at work to take time off for mental health issues in 1995 when I was working as a park ranger at Shenandoah National Park. As a seasonal employee, I was often recruited to assist in the park's rescue operations as I was frequently in the field and could therefore get to people in emergency situations quickly. That's how I wound up by myself, in the woods, performing CPR on a 70-year-old man while his wife cried quietly by my side.
It was a tough day, made even harder by the fact that it didn't have an uplifting ending. I was a 20-something kid who just watched a man die despite my best efforts to save him. I was shaken.
My boss suggested that I take a few days off to get my head back together, but as a seasonal employee, I didn't have any vacation days that I could use. That's when he told me that I could use my sick leave to take care of my mental health as well as my physical health. I was amazed by his response.
Now, more than 20 years later, I'm surprised that my old boss' stance on mental health issues hasn't become more mainstream.
Starting a national conversation
Recently, Madalyn Parker, a web developer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, tweeted about an email exchange she had with her boss about taking mental health days. Their discussion opened up a national conversation about mental health and the stigma that often surrounds it.
When the CEO responds to your out of the office email about taking sick leave for mental health and reaffirms your decision. 💯 pic.twitter.com/6BvJVCJJFq— madalyn | 🌈 🥄 (@madalynrose) June 30, 2017
In the tweet, Parker shares how she emailed her team to let them know she would be taking a few days off.
"I'm taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I'll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%," she wrote.
Her boss, Ben Congleton, responded with the utmost support:
"Hey Madalyn, I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this," Congleton wrote. "Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can't believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work."
Like me, Parker was pleasantly surprised by her employer's positive attitude. But what may be even more surprising is that we continue to marginalize mental health issues and second-guess the need for people to do what they need to do to feel better — no matter the cause.
If I had sprained my arm during that rescue mission in the woods, I would not have even thought twice about taking a sick day or two until it healed. But it was my mind that needed healing after that incident, and I'm fortunate that I had an employer who saw it that way.
Evan Weinberg, a senior vice president of communications at the public relations firm Burns McClellan, was taught early in his career how important it is to care for mental health by an employer who initiated morning meditation with her team and insisted that those who had clocked too many hours for the week take Fridays off. Weinberg now implements many of those strategies with his own communications team.
"For me it is simple," said Weinberg, "When my team is happy their work is better, clients are happier and employee cohesion increased. So when an employee needs to take time for mental health I know that it is not only important to them, but to their clients and to our organization."
Weiberg, Congleton and my old boss may be exceptions to the norm, but hopefully their vocal stances on the issue may help other employers see the light, and give employees the confidence they need to speak up when a sick day is in order.