Using Sick Days To Look After Your Mental Health
I’ve just seen a conversation on Twitter-one of many I’ve been seeing just lately- about how it’s still not acceptable to use sick days at work when you need to take some time off to look after your mental health. It’s inspired me to write a post/ ramble (incoherently) about how wrong that is in this day and age. Strap in, folks, it might be a long one.
Please note: I am mainly referring to anxiety and depression in this post as they are the two I have experience with that goes beyond a university lecture theatre.
My Mental Health Story
It’s not often that I talk about my own struggles with my mental health- I think that’s because there’s still a huge stigma attached and I’m worried that the more people know, the more negatively it will affect my life. That sounds horrible coming from someone who wants to be a psychologist and open the dialogue about mental health issues so that we can eventually eradicate the stigma, I know. But that’s why I don’t talk about it that much. It scares me.
That being said I get so angry at the way people with mental health problems are treated and the way people who have never experienced fully-fledged disorders speak about it, that I feel the need to speak up.
In regards to not being able to take sick days from work to look after yourself- whether that be because your boss won’t allow you to or because you don’t feel as though it’s a valid reason- has gotten me pretty riled up.
I was first diagnosed with anxiety when I was 17, after I was taken to A&E with a suspected heart attack later to be told I was having a bad panic attack that had lasted all day. I then went to my GP who referred me to a counsellor who told me I had depression as well as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). At that moment a lot of things fell into place. How difficult I found it to keep friends, how much I hated going to school, how much I couldn’t bring myself to talk about myself, and how much time I spent crying in my bed.
When I went to university, it got a lot easier to deal with- despite having no help from my university’s counselling service. I obviously had very down days and weeks where I’d miss lectures just so I could lie in bed all day, or where I’d go to bed early and be able to hear my housemates laughing and joking to each other but not be able to face going downstairs to join them. For the most part though, university was good.
Anxiety and depression never goes away; depression is a recurring disorder where a person who has it will relapse into a really difficult, depressive episode on average 5 times in their lifetime (This isn’t the source I was given in that lecture but here’s a journal article to back that up). I always know it’s there, even during the good times- although they do help and I do have long periods of time where I feel great and, dare I say it, like a fully functioning human.
Recently, I’ve been struggling again. I’m struggling to get out of bed in the mornings to go to work. I’m not really going out and seeing people, and the other day- for the first time in a long time- my anxiety took over and I nearly ended up having a panic attack on the train to London even though that journey is something I do quite frequently. I also, every now and then, work myself into such a state about driving that, when I feel like this, my commute from Leicester to Nottingham every day is something I really can’t face.
I’m incredibly lucky that the business I work for is small and my boss is very generous and understanding if you need to talk to him or take a day off. I have, however, experienced working in bigger companies and I know the pressure people face to show up every day when all you want to do is curl up under the covers and cry. I know how it feels when anxiety has brought your self-confidence crashing down to the ground and you have to go to work, where you’re convincing yourself that everyone is talking about you and nobody wants you there. I know how it feels to look like the healthiest person to walk the earth, who has a smile plastered on their face all day and who’s cracking jokes with everyone else, only to be thinking constantly about how much you despise the person you are.
And, even though I work in a small office, it doesn’t mean I still don’t feel guilt about taking time off for my mental health, or find it difficult to talk about the fact that I’m struggling.
Taking Time Away From Work To Look After Your Mental Health
I think, in this day and age where people are becoming more aware of the struggles of living with a mental health disorder, feeling as though you’re not allowed to use your sick days for anything other than a physical illness, is appalling. Sick days are there to help people take some time to get better. They’re there for people to take some time away from the pressures of a job and refresh themselves so they’re more productive and happier at work.
I’ve seen people on Twitter saying that they can’t face the sly comments their co-workers will make if they knew they’d had a mental health day. I know the comments they mean; “well everyone feels a bit down occasionally, we just get on with it” or “she needs to get a grip, if she takes time off every time she felt a bit down or anxious she’ll never be able to hold down a job” or words to that effect.
The thing is though, mental health problems go much deeper than ‘just feeling a bit down’. Of course everyone feels a bit down occasionally, and everyone has days where they wake up and can’t face going into work but they do it anyway. What I think a lot of people don’t realise is that, for people with mental health problems, these kinds of days can go on for weeks or months before we finally say we need a break- if we even say it at all. We struggle on because many bosses don’t understand why you’d need a day off sick if you look fine physically. We carry on going into work, and possibly letting our work and relationships with colleagues slip in the process, because we don’t want to think or hear about what our co-workers are saying about us. We show up daily, wishing the weekend to arrive so we can have some time to lock ourselves away from the world because we can’t deal with the shame we feel when friends and family ask why we’re not at work.
But sometimes it gets too much. Sometimes we need to say I’m ill and I can’t do this today. It’s time that people start accepting that sick days are there for any illness, not just physical ones. Workers should not be forced to struggle through, denying themselves time to rest up just because people who have never felt like they do don’t see it as a valid reason to miss a day or two in the office.
I realise that mental health struggles are not cured by taking a day or two off of work, but it’s a start. If you’re struggling, take that sick day. Be open and honest with your boss about why. Tell them that it’s affecting your work and productivity just as much as having the flu would. If you feel up to it, open up the dialogue between you and co-workers who might not understand how you’re feeling so that they can form a better understanding of how difficult it can be sometimes.
The more people that do this, the more the stigma surrounding mental health struggles and the need for sick days, will break down more than it already is.
Do you agree? Do you disagree? Let me know in the comments!
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