The response from a CEO to a worker who was taking leave for mental health reasons has recently gone viral. The story concerns an email from a worker where she told her team she was taking time off work for mental health reasons. Her CEO responded to this email thanking her for sending the message as it provided a reminder that taking time for mental health is important. With the concept of a ‘mental health day’ gaining attention and a recent survey finding 2 in 5 workers have taken time off for mental health issues, what should employers be aware of?
Although many employers want perfect attendance from their staff, taking time off when ill can have positive benefits for staff and the business. Taking time to deal with mental health issues at an early stage will help to control them before they have the chance to develop into a prolonged absence. This, in turn, reduces the overall amount of time the employee needs away from the business to recover from their illness and will help keep productivity and engagement high. Having a culture which encourages staff to take time off when necessary, as the CEO did, will ensure employees feel they are not negatively viewed because they do this.
Some mental illnesses will be classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Others may not, by themselves, meet the definition of a disability but can cause physical symptoms that do constitute a disability under the legislation. As such, employees should not be discriminated against or treated less favourably where they have taken time off for a disability related absence. Employers will also need to consider making reasonable adjustments to remove disadvantages faced by the employee and should be wary of discrimination arising from a disability where they are taking action against the employee based on their absences.
When an employee is taking time off for mental health illness, employers should not ignore or forget about these staff and should keep in touch with employees throughout their absence. Having reasonable contact will ensure the individual feels supported by the business during their illness and it will help prevent the employee feeling overwhelmed on their return. Contact should not be repetitive or overly intrusive as this could have the opposite effect and make the employee feel as if they are being hounded to come back. Getting the balance right is a difficult act but continuing communication is important to reinforce the company’s supportive culture.
On the employee’s return, the normal procedure should be followed including having a return to work meeting with the individual. This allows employers to sit down with the employee and discuss their absence and whether the business can do anything to help them stay in work. If the illness is a disability, this meeting is crucial to ensure any reasonable adjustments are discussed.