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Myths and Misperceptions: Mental Health in the Workplace

With healthcare receiving so much national attention these days from lawmakers and, subsequently, the media, most employees have at least a basic understanding regarding the benefits that are available (or not available) to them.

But they may be less sure of their options when it comes to using sick time or paid time off (PTO) specifically for “mental health”. Why might this be the case?

According to a July 2017 article in Money magazine by Jennifer Calfas, a stigma surrounding mental health might still exist within organizations today. To help break down that stigma, Calfas highlights – through her coverage of a tweet about mental health that went viral – the importance of understanding mental health so that it is eventually treated as “just business as usual.”

There are certainly some prevalent myths and misperceptions that may exist within workplaces, both on the part of the employee and the employer. But remember that each organization has its own policies and guidelines for paid leave that supersede any reflections or recommendations raised in this discussion.

What some People Believe: Using sick days to treat mental health is an “abuse of the system”.

Truth:  Not necessarily. Each organization defines the scope of “sickness” differently. Check with your organization’s HR director or department to determine what is allowable within the benefits program. In some cases, mental health is covered under designated sick leave. For others, employees are given a set amount of PTO that can be used at the employee’s discretion (e.g., vacation, illness, mental health, etc.).

Either way, taking some form of PTO to treat mental health should be considered a viable alternative for employees.  What we know is that doing so can actually be helpful for employees, because they often return more rapidly to greater productivity. In short, organizations can save money in the long-term by affording employees the time they need to regain mental health as needed.

Potential myth/misperception: Mental health needs should be scheduled in advance.

Truth: People may not have any advance notice; they may not know they need it until that day. The reality is that you can’t predict and schedule time off for a panic attack any more than you can predict in advance that you’re going to need sick leave for an impending cold or flu. Organizations must recognize and respect employees’ privacy regarding their mental health just as they would physical health concerns.

Potential myth/misperception:  Mental health is a choice and is often used as an excuse for poor performance.   

Truth: If it was a choice, those suffering from depression or anxiety or extreme levels of stress would be quick to say they would gladly choose not to experience those mental health stressors. To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the inaccurate stereotype that mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, are a ‘sign of personal weakness’, a stereotype, Calfas noted in her article, one that the American Psychological Association (APA) works hard to defeat in companies and organizations.

Calfas notes that, according to the APA, 80 percent of employees treated for mental illness showed improved levels of work efficiency. Indeed, creating an environment of “psychological safety” centered around the health and wellbeing of every employee will no doubt go a long way toward removing the stigma many employees feel.

Potential myth/misperception: Mental health (and illness) is an isolated concern for a select few employees.

Truth: Simply put, mental health is a health issue.  Just as employees are encouraged by their employers to remain physically well through preventive screenings, for example, they should also be supported in efforts to actively monitor and maintain mental health, as well – to the extent it is possible.

The reality is that mental illness is something one out of every five American adults experience, according to Calfas. As Ben Congleton, CEO of a Michigan-based software company, said in Calfas’ article, employers have an obligation to consider how to “build a safe space for employees, where they can feel vulnerable and are willing to share any issues they may be having, whether that’s related to mental health or not”.

I’m sure employers would be happy not to see that traditionally huge spike in sick leave each November and December as employees scramble to take advantage of “use-it-or-lose-it” sick leave? And every employer would prefer a happy and productive staff.

Perhaps if all employers demonstrated a value for mental health throughout the year, employees would feel more comfortable making their emotional wellbeing a priority by periodically taking the time needed to stay healthy and productive, rather than let it impact their day-to-day duties or boil over into a longer absence from work.

Rebekah Cardenas, Ph.D., is vice president of business development and assessment solutions at EASI•Consult®.  EASI•Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult,  visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call (800) 922-EASI.

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