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Workplace Health Ethics: Mental Health Questions
2017-07-18 08:46:28
Maricor Zapata

U.S.web developer Madalyn Parker incited debate online about attitudes in the workplace as they pertain to mental problems when she tweeted an email her boss sent to employees.Her boss claimed to be making an “example to us all,” according to Parker, in informing colleagues that she was taking a mental health day (i.e.a leave of absence), and many in both the U.S.and the U.K.can’t help wonder how much support there is for this kind of sick leave.

In an email headed with the subject, “Where’s Madalyn,” Parker proceeded to tell her colleagues that she, too, would be “taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health.Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.” This only snowballed into a health news story as people began to grapple on social media with the question of whether or not mental health qualifies as a health issue for which one should be able to take sick days.

Ben Congleton, chief executive of the tech company at which Parker is employed, simply replied to the message: “I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.” He continued, “You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”

In the U.K., taking a sick day for one’s mental health is legally the same as taking the same day off for a terrible sinus infection or some other physical ailment.Britons took reportedly 137 million sick days last year, and of those, about 15.8 million such sick days were stated to be mental health-related issues, which can range from anxiety, depression and stress to more serious mental health conditions like schizophrenia or manic depression, according to reports from the Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey.

In the same reports, it is also clear that 34 million sick days are considered to have been “lost” as a result of colds, coughs and other minor illnesses for which many are unsympathetic due to the frequency of their occurrence and the relative manageability of them for most people.Madeleine McGivern is the head of workplace wellbeing at the philanthropic organization, Mind, and she says that “people are still wary” of admitting their sick day is being taken to deal with a mental health issue.

 

“There is definitely a fear it will affect your career, or that people will judge you and make assumptions that aren’t fair or true,” McGivern reports. “If you’re not in a supportive environment, if you do disclose a mental health problem it can be really harmful to you.”

In lieu of the stigma associated with mental health issues, though, many are advocating the notion that this is not simply a mental health concern but, rather, an overall health issue for everyone.The idea is that people need to be able to work, and because sickness is inevitable, they need to be able to cope with sickness on their own time and still have a job to which they can return at optimal health.This is the case regardless of the nature of the health issue, according to those driving the discussion, whether it be a mental or physical ailment.

McGivern explains that employers are obligated by law to protect their employees’ safety and health, and she furthers this point by saying that health is inclusive of mental health as much as anything else. “If you are unwell for any reason, you should be able to work in a place where you feel you can say ‘I’m unwell today because I’ve got an inflamed back’ or ‘I’ve got really high feelings of anxiety at the moment’—they’re actually the same thing,” McGivern points out.

Parker’s viral tweet read, “When the CEO responds to your out of the office email about taking sick leave for mental health and reaffirms your decision. 100,” which was retweeted incessantly and received many replies.On the heels of this social media discussion wafting out from an American tweet, a 42-year-old, British manager named Lisa contacted the BBC and explained that she was feeling pressured to “put on a brave face” and work on days when she felt it was better for her overall health to deal with her depression.

“I’ve been working in the public sector for over 20 years and have twice had short periods off work through mental health issues,” Lisa elucidates.She explains a feeling of fear associated with the prospect of being stigmatized for such issues and, perhaps, simply being branded as “flaky” if she ever took time for her mental health. “The need to ‘put on a brave face’ was overwhelming and in the end too much for me,” Lisa says.

“I was prescribed anti-depressants and stayed off work for a few weeks.Even when I returned I wasn’t supported and felt further ostracized.” Lisa goes on to explain about her career that it had “until now been the defining passion in my life.”

“As a previously high-performing individual the treatment I received felt like a bereavement.” The most reductive thing that officials and executives can do in these circumstances, whether in the U.K., the U.S.or anywhere else, is suggest that this is merely a mental health concern.Everyone’s health is said by advocates of mental health sick days to be on the table when stigma is allowed to dictate what merits taking a leave of absence.


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