Mental health days are an increasingly popular benefit amid the pandemic, and a great thing to discuss around World Mental Health Day. But before you offer this benefit, an expert notes, you need to build a culture that nourishes the mere possibility of mental health days.

With the stress of the pandemic extending for months on end, mental health days have come to the fore as an option for supporting well-being, in the workplace and even in the classroom.

And World Mental Health Day (which takes place on Sunday, October 10, this year) gives you the perfect excuse to bring up the topic within your association.

But while mental health days can prove an important part of a toolkit, if they’re not a part of a cultural shift that supports mental health, your organization and its employees may not get the full benefit of days off, says Bhavik Shah, principal of the mental health nonprofit Mind Share Partners.

“We have to think past these one-time initiatives or these performative actions, because people can really see through that as employees and they deserve better,” he says.

BUILD A MENTAL HEALTH CULTURE FOR YOUR EMPLOYEES

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one fifth of U.S. adults live with some form of mental illness. That means that depression, anxiety, and other conditions are probably more common than you think within your workplace.

These conditions, coupled with garden-variety stress and the arduous grind of managing a workload, can create difficult situations in the workplace. Shah says that leadership needs to take these issues seriously.

“The onus should be on leadership to set the examples and have these discussions, and empower other people in their communities to have those discussions within their teams,” he says.

As leaders encourage and foster discussions surrounding mental health, setting a policy of mental health days may be one way for them to turn discussions into action. But they should be offered as one element among many. If an organization offers mental health days without the bedrock of an organizational culture that nurtures mental well-being, the effectiveness of those days off is limited.

“Offering PTO deals without that culture norm is risky, and our research shows that 30 percent of employees report these benefits only lasted a few days, and that their mental state returns back to where it was,” he says.

STRUCTURING MENTAL HEALTH DAYS

As anyone who has taken a mental health day might know, the need for them can be sudden and difficult to plan for—neat timing isn’t always compatible with mental health needs. Shah compares it to how we might handle a coworker who breaks an arm, for example.

“There shouldn’t be such a huge difference in how we handle mental health support,” he says.

Shah says that this is something that individual managers will need to account for in their processes so they can build structures around mental health days as needs emerge.

“Managers should be absolutely clear on how they manage these workplace stressors that run across their team,” he says. This clarity can come in a number of forms, including establishing communication norms, balancing autonomy and structure within team operations, and building contingency plans so people can take time off on the fly.

But if a mental health need is more significant in nature—requiring a leave of absence or long-term restructuring as a result of stress added from caregiving needs—the HR department will need to step in, guided by state and local regulations.

“I always say, managers and HR should be partners in these types of conversations,” Shah says. “They shouldn’t be having conversations in isolation with the individual, because it doesn’t suit the wider purpose.”

OTHER WAYS TO SUPPORT MENTAL HEALTH

Once you’ve established an organizational ethos of mental health, you can get into tactics. Mental health days are just one of the ways associations can support mental health needs. Others include:

Employee assistance programs. Shah says these should be considered in context of your full organization, accounting for marginalized groups. “Rather than just offering any EAP, do a bit of research and work with your specific EAP,” he says.

Establish a relationship with a care provider. Some organizations work in partnership with a psychologist or other medical officer who can offer therapy to team members.

Structured discussions of mental health. Shah suggests offering staff members the opportunity to talk about mental health openly in a storytelling or panel discussion format, if they so choose.

Make your resources known. Having useful resources may not help your employees if those resources are hard to find. Shah points to challenges he had with a former employer, where the resources he needed were hidden on the system’s intranet and difficult to access. “It’s enough for people to take a step back and say, ‘OK, I don’t want to leverage this because now I have to ask someone,’” he says.

Ultimately, mental health days, or any sort of benefit that you offer your staff members, should be offered with a broader goal in mind: removing the stigma around mental health issues entirely. It’s more than just a day off.

ERNIE SMITH

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE »