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People's Grim Stories of Being Penalised for Taking Mental Health Sick Days

From faking physical illnesses to having in-depth honest chats with their manager, this is how people are navigating it.

by Hannah Ewens; illustrated by Joel Benjamin
28 November 2019, 7:16am

Illustration by Joel Benjamin.

Over the past couple of years, the notion of "taking a mental health day" may well have become common online parlance across your timelines. If not, let me explain. It generally denotes using a sick day to focus on your mental, rather than just physical, health – think a day spent in your pants or pyjamas eating well, attempting a YouTube exercise video, watching sitcoms and generally deploying the strategies you and/or your therapist consider helpful to pull you back from the brink.

If you're unable to work due to physical or mental illness, normal UK employment laws and your company's sickness rules apply. But naturally, your manager's levels of knowledge and sympathy about mental health may differ from company to company, and stigma still pervades many businesses, and indeed, industries. From my own experience, I know it's often easier to claim some dramatic physical malady – the more gruesome the better – than to go into details of mental distress or explain that you aren't anywhere near crisis point now. Unless your mental health is severely impaired, it can feel as though you need to lie to secure a preventative day off and protect yourself against both a spiral and discrimination.

I asked people from across various industries, in full-time and part-time employment, as well as freelancers, how they navigate taking a sick day for their mental health. Have attitudes changed since the middle of the decade? Are people honest with their manager or commissioner? Does it differ from occasion to occasion? Or when all's said and done, would they rather say they were struck down with a severe case of the shits than admit to a moderate depressive episode?

Tim*, 26, Cambridgeshire
Works in childcare

Working to ratios in childcare means that there’s also this pressure to keep going to work as you don’t want to let the team and the children down. I had made it clear to my manager that I suffered with my mental health so she was aware. The company was good and offered counselling for free through themselves, but in terms of taking time off or requesting it before it got bad, I was never made to feel like that was an option to me. It was always ‘we’re here to help and we have means of supporting you here’, but never ‘take time if you need’.

So it culminated in a period of self-harm, which management picked up on as it was visible, but even then they never said take time off and I never felt comfortable asking for a mental health day. Instead I consulted a doctor and was signed off for two weeks. I think that could have been avoided had I felt comfortable or been made to feel comfortable that having a couple of days off to de-stress was a viable option. As a result, I feel it’s massively important to allow people time off for mental health.

Holly*, 32, London
Works in publishing

Prior to this autumn, I'd refused to ever believe that my mental health would merit a day off work, despite always advocating it for others. I'd never ever taken one, preferring to work through while doing deep breathing in the loo at shorter and shorter intervals.

Anyway. I finally did take one, because things got much worse. I found it transformative. Maybe I'm lucky in that my boss responded compassionately: on the day, she respected it in the same way she would the flu, and going forward she helped me find steps to limit email traffic and kept an eye on my hours. It felt really helpful to say clearly to colleagues that I had to stay at home. It's helped me self-regulate my own work-life balance far better than before, because I've been able to be honest with myself and others about what needs to change – and it allowed people to look out for me.

Bob, 37, Amsterdam
Works in tech

Last year, I upped and moved to the Netherlands and started a job at a Silicon Valley tech company; a very intense, fast-paced, workaholism-encouraged kinda place. The combination of that and leaving behind my entire support network brought on an anxiety episode that manifested itself in low mood, lack of motivation. I'd have anxiety-induced insomnia, or perhaps a cold that could absolutely have been worked through, but I'd call in sick with a 'migraine', or do the classic 'bad cold voice'. Basically any excuse not to go in. My absence rate got flagged up and I had to have a conversation with HR. She was very understanding, and gave me guidance on how to get support from Dutch GPs who are notoriously reluctant to prescribe medication.

Still, I wasn't comfortable telling my manager until I had to. My manager is based in California, so the nine-hour time difference exacerbated the problem and our total lack of rapport. Overall I think people in my industry are happy to talk about mental health problems but bad at taking steps to treat or prevent them. The company provides free yoga, meditation, massages, lunches, basically lots of 'wellness' stuff, but the overall culture is still incredibly high-pressured and I don't think they want to change that.

Ali*, 29, Birmingham
Works in healthcare

A couple of years ago I was finally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. I kept this to myself and didn’t tell anyone at work, but suddenly there was this huge shift in my personal life and I began suffering desperately from symptoms. When it came to random days off, I would make up excuses: tonsillitis, gastro. There’s such pressure when you have an illness like this to act like you don’t have the illness. It’s interesting because before I worked in healthcare, I worked for a well-known pub chain, and the manager there said he completely couldn’t understand it at all, but they were far more supportive and understanding. They actually sent me to A&E once when they were so worried about me. It could have something to do with the average age of an employee at those places I guess. Those aged 40-plus seem to be less understanding.

I finally caved and told my manager in my healthcare role that I couldn’t handle what was going on as well as work, and explained my diagnosis to them. They were super supportive and I was off for roughly a month and a half. After two more incidents, with work becoming tired of me and making me feel like a nuisance, I finally started getting told I was going to have to fight for my job at a panel. The support just drops the more real mental illness becomes to an employer, even within the healthcare sector.

Dan*, 31, London
Works in law

I’ve never formally taken something that’d be called a 'mental health day', but I’ve definitely taken a sick day when that’s been the cause. It’s just never been formally called that. I think if we called it that, I’d certainly think twice about using it. My feeling is that if I was particularly stressed and it was causing me to be in that kind of headspace – i.e. where I felt mentally unwell as opposed to just dealing with the levels of stress that come with any job – I would be worried about setting hairs running by putting my head above the parapet, by saying ‘oh by the way, this is why I’m doing this’.

Is taking a singular day off going to help? In my case, it has done in the past; that’s been enough to get my head straight. And for that reason I’d feel nervous about making it clear it was for mental health reasons because I don’t want anyone to think it was a much bigger problem than it was.

Kirsty, 28, Brighton
Freelance copywriter

I take mental health sick days but not ones for physical health – unless I literally can’t hold my head up. I’m a freelance content writer so as long as it doesn’t impact on deadlines I will take off a few hours or even a whole mental health day to get away from the computer to walk in the countryside, meet a friend to vent, nap on the sofa, or do whatever will help. One of the benefits of working from home is that you don’t have to tell anyone you’re having a terrible day unless you want to. You can go off and recharge for a bit, then finish your work, reply to emails in the evening or the next day. But I do need to be organised with work to have that flexibility. I thankfully haven’t had to change any deadlines last minute. I try to finish work as in advance as possible to give myself flexibility if I need it.

When it comes to freelancing, there will always be another freelancer to take your place so I can’t imagine editors or clients would be very understanding unless there was a real crisis.

Barb, 29, London
Works in advertising

I've managed to structure a relative freelance work life for myself. I am generally booked by the day or week, so if I sense a bout of depression approaching, most of the time I just say I have work from another agency and take time off without having to elaborate. Obviously that directly impacts my monthly income and if it got really bad I do worry about what I'd do. But at the moment it's a compromise that I'm fairly comfortable with. I have had to take time off from contracted work too. When that happened I told my boss that I had mental health problems and wasn't well enough to come in for the rest of the week, and I felt really terrible about it. Practically, of course it's an uncomfortable conversation but I also think most of the time it's pretty obvious. And if you have an OK relationship with your senior at work then they can sense it anyway.

Thomas, 25, Buckinghamshire
Works in retail and customer service

I'm an anxiety and OCD sufferer. Things went well at my retail job for a while then it all got a bit on top of me and I had to take a sick day. I lied and said I had gastro – in reality, I was just feeling completely down and unable to leave the house and interact with people. Not long after that, I was pulled up by management as not 'performing' well enough – if you've worked in retail, you'll know how high pressure it can be, even for people working completely satisfactorily. I opened up about my mental health here and they basically told me I should have told them from the off, before going off on a lecture about how we all have anxieties.

In my more recent customer service job, I similarly lied about the first mental health day or two, but eventually had to open up to my boss as it was clearly affecting me. While not necessarily understanding the ins and outs of what I was dealing with, he tried to understand my condition and wanted to help. I took another couple of days off before going back, but I then ended up signed off for two weeks. Then one of the directors wrote to me saying that they'd have to go down disciplinary channels. They doubted whether I'd be able to continue the role long-term – I think I could have done, but I already felt like I'd be up against it trying to convince them, and resigned.

Would things have been different had I 'come clean' the very first time I took a sick day? I don't think so. As soon as you put the thought of mental illness in an employer's head, you're changing their perception of you and putting more pressure on yourself.

@hannahrosewens / @_joelbenjamin_

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Tagged:
illness
depression
anxiety
sick days
Mental Health Day