Public holidays, long weekends, work parties, anything and everything that gives workers a day off is celebrated and expected in Australia. It’s the Aussie way of spending that time having a barbie and drinking some beers with mates. We leave our workplace and spend our public holidays seeing family and friends, attending festivals, going to the beach, and just relaxing. No work, no responsibilities and you automate your emails to, ‘not available, out having a bloody great time’ (sounds close enough).

Everyone deserves to have a ‘bloody great’ time, but when does it become too much? The concerns with sick days; especially after a long weekend; is whether or not the sick day is in truth a real sick day. It can make it difficult for employees who have legitimate reasons for having a sick day and needing time off. Will anyone believe them or will their reason be seen as just an excuse for an extra long weekend?

The point of this blog isn’t about ‘how to decipher if an employee is lying or not’, it’s how do we create a workplace environment that encourages and supports employees in being open about the real reasons why they’re taking a sick day.

The Facts

A recent report by Allianz Australia stated that 93% of full-time employed Australians would rather lie to their boss and tell them they’re sick than share the truth. What truth is that you may ask. Well, this truth is revolving around mental health. Oh boy, here we go. Do you feel like I did a 360 on you? I know, there’s plenty of articles with statistics and stories about the reality behind mental health. It’s a topic that a multiple of us still struggle to understand, then again for many others; it’s the world they live in every day.

But why are so many Australian workers struggling to share such information with their employer? The answer is fear — what a shocker. Fear always gets the best of us humans, and it can potentially ruin any opportunity, support and dream. I dream of becoming a successful writer and presenter, oh wait, Mr Fear is here, he’s telling me ‘no, you can’t do it’ – oh no, my dream is over. See what can happen? Same concept with mental health, but not as ridiculously illustrated as I just put it.

Seventy-eight per cent of Australians who would rather lie to their boss as opposed to asking for a mental health day, say their main concern is the fear of losing their job.

Now imagine a sports coach having a star player, and sadly that player sustains an injury. They still make it to all the practices and meetings, they always stretch and do exercises, yet they may not necessarily be able to play every game. The coach starts looking for someone to replace them; they can’t risk losing a game if one of their star players isn’t up to shape. See what I did there?

What if you tell your boss that you are suffering from mental health problems and they see that as a problem and a potential risk to the succession of the business? Just writing that above example gave me a sour taste in my mouth, but unfortunately, it happens as ‘business is business’. With 1 in 5 Australians experiencing a mental health problem, you could think of it statistically as 3 million workers. It could be anyone; your boss, your barista, your best mate. The people you work with who seem perfectly happy and healthy may be a part of that alarming statistic, and you would never know as it is rarely discussed and shared openly in the workplace.

Look Around

There are many factors in why an individual could be struggling with poor mental health, including personal or family-related matters, losing a loved one, trauma, stress-induced work, bullying plus millions more. How you can help eliminate the factors concerning the stigma of mental health in the workplace is by focusing on the work culture and environment. Ask yourself this. Are your employees overworked and fatigued? Are they displaying behaviour of disconnection and lack of care about their performance and responsibilities? Did anyone come to mind after reading that?

For employees to feel comfortable when asking for a mental health day, action needs to be taken, and something has to cha- No, I’m not going to say the word change (typing it doesn’t count) – we always hear it and I’m quite sick of it; sorry, no offence. Change in the new year, change in society, change in the workplace, change in politics, in relationships, change, change and more change. Yup, not going to say it anymore. You hear the word change and wonder if it even happens.

Instead, we need to show empathy; the ability to understand and feel for another person. You don’t just say “oh, I’m sorry to hear that” *proceeds to walk away slowly* – you stop and try to relate by reflecting on your life and what moments or events held you down and made you feel empty and alone. Please note I am not a professional and have no expertise in this matter, but like so many people I have the first-hand experience of how mental health can affect your life and your career.

I remember I once sat down with an ex-manager and shared with them some personal issues I was facing, and that I needed some time off. I said it all in a rush so they wouldn’t feel complied to ask more questions or display a discomforting expression on their face. Surprisingly, their response was incredible, and I never felt so supported and safe when it came to my place of work.

Manager Talent Aoife Brady from The Benevolent Society agrees that taking mental health days is a positive step to manage stress levels in your company where,

“almost every time the employee returned happier, more focused and better able to respond to the business needs”.

It’s time to cut the stigma around mental health as “research shows the benefit of a diverse workforce, and this includes neurodiversity” said Aoife Brady.

What You Can Do

Support and the ‘open door’ method is what we need within all companies and organisations. You could have ten employees or even one million; whatever the figure is, creating a work environment that accepts and is empathetic to people will benefit your company and the people who help build and sustain it. All good CEOs and organisations know that their employees help make their business successful, and without them, it would be nothing.

Now I’m not saying be overly sensitive and give everyone days off because, in reality, human beings are subjective and can be quite self-absorbed. I’ve known people throughout the years who have been dishonest to managers about having issues and not being mentally well; next thing I know they post pictures on social media going to a party or they tell one too many people that they didn’t want to go to work; so they lied. Those misfortunate souls as I like to say are the ones you need to look out for when it comes to the elusive ‘sickie’. Don’t let them be the reason why you can’t trust your staff or believe certain individuals who do need a mental health day.

According to HeadSpace, ‘the mental wellbeing of people at work is good for everyone and enhances personal and organisational resilience and success. Everyone has a role to play, both in looking after their own mental health and creating a mentally healthy workplace’. The discussion revolving around mental health is still shushed and whispered amongst society, where many see it as a weakness and disadvantage. The core message behind this is what strategies you are prepared to implement within your company.

Here are some suggestions on tools and tactics you can introduce to your workplace:

  • Surveys and questionnaires to uncover what your employees are aware of in regards to mental health, and what they would like to see change and improve in the workplace.
  • Training sessions and educational meetings amongst managers and senior staff to help learn about mental health. By introducing this method, it can educate managers with the best way of approaching employees and effectively engaging staff to build an open work environment.
  • 24/7 confidential phone services just for employees; depending on the size of the organisation. This service should be shared amongst staff through email, meetings, business cards that they can keep with them at all times, as well as putting banners and posters reminding staff that they do have options and support.
  • Offer online anonymous chat rooms with mental health professionals, which can help make your employees feel more protected if they don’t want to speak to someone directly.
  • Open discussion with employees in groups and one on one. By simply grabbing a coffee with a staff member and asking them “are you okay?” can make an incredible difference. They may reply with “yeah, I’m fine”, and could even be lying, but at least you started the conversation and indicated to them that you are someone they can talk to; whether they choose to or not is up to them.

If you can place and implement any of these methods for your company, but please keep in mind the significant role they play in the increased productivity and financial affairs of your company.

‘Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains’, stated the World Health Organisation. WHO has further said that ‘a negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity’. This can all be attributed to a poor work/life balance where the focus has shifted, thus causing the unfortunate domino effect.

Reach Out

What improvements will be made in 2019, and can we expect further progression for mental health awareness in the workplace? I believe the answer to that is yes, and hopefully, with this blog, you can also be a part of the new and improved 2019.

Mental health is nothing to be ashamed of, it doesn’t devalue you as a person, and it certainly does not mean you are incapable of accomplishing a task and reaching your goal. Don’t give the impression to your staff that you and the company cannot be empathetic and understanding when approached in regards to a mental health day. Make it okay for your employees to ask, and thank them for being open and ridding the stigma of mental health in the workplace.

If you or someone you know needs support, please contact Beyond Blue at 1300 22 4636

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