Request a “Mental Health Day”? Do Not Use that Phrase

“The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: It is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”

– C. S. Lewis

ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: Last month an article entitled “How to Ask for a Mental Health Day” appeared in the Wall Street Journal, written by “Work & Life” columnist Sue Shellenbarger. Sue is a well known and well regarded writer on matters of “Work & Life.” I respect and admire her very much. On this subject, in my opinion, she was entirely wrong in her approach and conclusion on this subject.

When I saw the title of the column, I gulped; I said to myself, “She can’t be recommending people request ‘mental health’ days, could she?” When I read the column, I gasped; she seemed to be headed that way. When I finished reading her piece, I groaned; sure enough, she seemed to be recommending that people be “honest” and ask their managers for “mental health” days off when they were needed.

LESSON TO LEARN: While I fully recognize that there is a stigma attached to having a mental health illness, I also view the phrase “mental health day” to be both an inappropriate use of that phrase, and laden with several, substantial and entirely unnecessary risks.

Also, while I dedicate much of my life to improving the world we live in, I also recognize that it is almost always unwise to create or accept unnecessary risks in doing so. My view is that it is 100% unnecessary, unwise and potentially hazardous to your job, your career and your reputation to request a “mental health day” at work, as well as, in itself, a touch dishonest. So, “Just Don’t Do It.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Instead, let’s just deal with the issue before us: feeling angry, spent, cranky, even on the verge of tears? Not sure you will be able to hold onto your temper if you go to work? Ready to explode at a work colleague? I get it; I’ve been there. But in such events, I strongly urge you to never, ever ask for a “mental health day” at work. Here are my thoughts:

1. Honesty is always important, but in this circumstance, a small fib is surely preferable. Honesty is a virtue, but absolute honesty is not an absolute virtue, and is often not a virtue, at all. There is no question that there are times, circumstances and events in which small fibs are wiser and easily forgivable, and, so, should be used.

If a physician believes that a 10-year-old child has a short time to live, must the physician tell that to the child? What if the child asks the physician if he or she is going to die? If a police officer knows that a person was killed in an auto accident, must the officer tell the family of the death, even if in a public setting, or might the officer tell them only of the accident and the injury, and leave the sharing of the loved one’s passing to the family’s clergyperson, in a more appropriate setting?

Life is full of such things. Considering how important it is, or may be, to your job, your career and your reputation, I view “fibbing” about the true need for a day off to be acceptable. I accept others feeling differently, but I do not shy from my own view, as a lifelong employee advocate.

2. If you are feeling that what you need is a day or two off, why escalate the request by the use of the phrase “mental health” at all? If you are frazzled, need to rest, are anxious, troubled or angry, take a day or two off, call it a physical illness or family emergency, but why use the phrase “mental health” unless you honestly believe you may have a true “mental illness?”

3. If you are really having true mental health issues, deal with that problem in a more honest, serious way. Might your use of the phrase “mental health,” itself, be a bit dishonest, a gross exaggeration, and entirely misleading? Might it be unfair to all of those who do have mental health problems to describe your momentary “blahs” as a mental illness or disease? We casually use the phrase “mental health day,” but should we do so formally, when it is not truly honest?

If you have become seriously ill, you should review your employer’s illness-related policies. To do so, use our Model Notification of Illness or Injury, Requesting Information, Forms, Procedures and Deadlines. It can prevent discrimination or retaliation, as it makes a clear record of your reporting possible illness. It shows you “What to Say and How to Say It”™ just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

4. Asking for a “mental health day” off might be viewed by some as a violation of company policies and thus even misconduct, in itself. It is very, very doubtful that your employer’s employee handbook or company policies permit employees to take “sick” days off, with pay, for anything other than “physical health” issues. Bear in mind that the person to whom you are reporting that you need a “mental health” day off, or the person he/she reports to, or someone else, might see your doing so as laziness, a violation of company policy, or not caring about your job enough to deserve it. “If I can make it through tough days, why can’t he?”

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5. In many jobs and professions, requesting a “mental health” day is the equivalent of reporting “mental illness,” and for your doing so you may be barred from returning to work until a psychiatrist examines you, and certifies you ready to return. Should a manager report such a request to Human Resources, your returning to work without a psychiatric evaluation and certification might not be possible.

How would you respond to a request for “mental health” time off if the person requesting it (a) is a school crossing guard, (b) is an airline pilot, (c) is known to own or have access to guns, (d) is a surgeon? Or (e) is a child care worker? Cautiously, and not casually, I expect.

6. Call me paranoid if you want to, but some people who are not your “friends” at work could use against you your calling yourself in need of “mental health” time off. Every now and then we see a workplace dynamic between two employees in which one would do anything he or she can do to hurt the other. Perhaps it is the result of some kind of jealousy. Perhaps it is competition over which one of the two will get a promotion. Sometimes it is simply a dislike resulting from a past perceived insult. Well, such an “enemy” might just spread the word that you have called yourself in need of “mental health” time off, which just can’t be great for you, your workplace relations, or your professional or industry reputation.

7. There are so many readily available alternatives to use instead of “mental health day,” why not use them, instead? Headache. Queasy stomach. Back pain. Sore throat. Digestive issues. Ears ringing. Ankle sprain. Nausea. Joint pain. Physical exhaustion. Chest congestion. Constipation. Diarrhea. Ultra gassy. Plus, plus, plus. I’m sure you have plenty examples of your own!!

8. Like it or not, the stigma of your having casually reported you need “mental health” time off could be reported to others, and spread, and thus last a lifetime. Would it be dishonest if your employer, or anyone who works for your employer, reported to others that you have self-reported “mental health” issues? What if that fact – not fiction – was somehow entered into your performance evaluation and HR file?

What if you applied for a sensitive government job that requires a security clearance; might this come up? Do not underestimate the depth of some background checks done by employers during the pre-employment screenings.

Don’t forget: we offer over 250 Model Letters, Memos, Checklists and Form Agreements for almost every workplace issue, concern and problem that requires your smart navigating and negotiating. They show you “What to Say, How to Say It.™” Want to see our Entire List? Just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

In Summary . . .

At work, we all have bad days, and days we probably should not go into the workplace. But that does not mean we are having mental health issues, and it definitely does not mean you should “brand” yourself as someone who has reported himself of herself, in the eyes of some, as being mentally ill. Unless you truly do believe you are experiencing true mental health issues, you would be wise to instead use a simply and readily available alternative, such as a headache, backache, bellyache, etc. Is it a fib? Yes. Is it wise? Yes it is. Does it perpetuate the unfair stigma against those with mental illness? I don’t think so. Considering all you have at stake, be reasonable, wise and prudent. Let those be your compass points.

P.S.: If you would like to speak directly about this or other subjects, Mr. Sklover is available for 30-MINUTE, 60-MINUTE, OR 120-MINUTE TELEPHONE CONSULTATIONS, just [click here.] Evenings and weekends can often be accommodated.

SkloverWorkingWisdom™ emphasizes smart negotiating – and navigating – for yourself at work. Negotiation and navigation of work and career issues requires that you think “out of the box,” and build value and avoid risks at every point in your career. We strive to help you understand what is commonly before you – traps and pitfalls, included – and to avoid the likely bumps in the road. For those who need a day off, or two, don’t take unnecessary risks like branding yourself, publicly, as being mentally ill. It’s a matter of wise “navigation and negotiation.”

Always be proactive. Always be creative. Always be persistent. Always be vigilant. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “rewards” and eliminate or reduce employment “risks.” That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.

*A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.

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