“Mental health day” has become a popular term used in the workplace when taking a day off that does not correspond with the decline of one’s physical health. Workplace and Mental Health statistics compiled by the American Psychological Association state that approximately one in four workers has called in sick or taken a “mental health day” as a result of work stress.
So how do workplaces respond to their employees asking for time off to care for their mental and emotional health as opposed to their physical health?
In their article, “Mental Health in the Workplace: How to Accommodate,” Benefits Canada cites the single biggest stressor is the way individuals are perceived in their workplace when they need time off for a mental health issue. Dr. Mona Gupta, clinical leader of the Mental Health in Medicine program at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto explains:
I think they feel there’s a perception that they’re taking advantage of the system, they’re exaggerating their illness—when really, what they want to be doing is working and functioning and feeling well. We need to get away from the “broken leg” model in which we view mental illness as an acute event, to a functionality model, which recognizes that conditions are chronic but also focuses on what employees can do as opposed to what their condition prevents them from doing.
This “broken leg” model, as Dr. Gupta terms it, is a common perception of mental illness in the workplace across all professions, especially in those where employees are held to a level of esteem such as teaching, health care or corporate settings. Statistics Canada states that approximately two-thirds of Canadians with at least one mental disorder or substance dependence failed to contact a mental health professional, the main reasons being real or perceived stigma attached to mental illness or those who seek help; specifically from their employers or co-workers.
As an individual with a diagnosed anxiety condition and a sufferer of chronic depression, I had a very difficult time going into my profession of choice, namely education. In my teachers college year, in one of my work placements I was constantly being undermined by the teacher I was working with, making it difficult for me to maintain control and order in the classroom. Telling my professors and the principal that I was suffering was unthinkable, as I thought that I would be perceived as weak. I also assumed they would think, “if she can’t handle her role as a student teacher, there is no way she will be able to handle being a full time teacher.”
I powered through as best as I could, hiding my feelings and not telling my professors, colleagues or even my family what was making me so anxious. I was afraid that they wouldn’t see me as being strong and able to take the next crucial step to becoming independent and self-sufficient. In the end, I completed my placement requirements physically and emotionally exhausted, with my evaluations not reflecting my true teaching abilities, but overwhelmingly proud of myself for emerging in one (somewhat) intact piece.
However, I came out of the experience somewhat jaded and a little bit angry. For five years, I had been groomed by the university to take on a teaching position and I felt I had somewhat failed in their eyes. Even today when I am unable to obtain a job in the teaching profession due to the competitiveness and large number of recent graduates, I feel a sense of worthlessness and anger at myself.
Although I am embarking on a new career path, I still feel a sense of frustration and loss when I think of teaching and, in particular, that final placement. The stigma that surrounds mental illness prevented me from speaking out about my condition, and the fear of not being heard stopped me from speaking out about my difficulty with the teacher I was working with until it was too late.
We need to continue to challenge the stance that employers take on mental illness and establish a culture of honesty, mindful practice and acceptance in our workplace, so that understanding can be established for individuals who are suffering.