Mental Health Days Are Just A Band-Aid For Burnout

Mental Health Days Are Just A Band-Aid For Burnout

Two and a half years after the start of the pandemic, the burnout is still there. It is said to be widespread in sectors such as medicine, education and childcare; by some measures, job stress only increased even as daily routines seemed more ‘normal’. To cope, Americans, especially younger generations, are turning to “mental health day”: an occasional day off, perhaps with little notice, justified as necessary to maintain well-being. It is, in principle, a sick day for the mind.

Companies have started to react: some are renaming sick days as “wellness days”, which employees can take for their physical or mental health. A survey of 455 employers found that 30% intended to offer mental health days in the next two years, compared to 9% currently doing so. The concept of mental health day has even made its way into schools. The website Parents recently released survey results showing that 56% of parents have allowed their children to take time off from school for their mental health, and a further 32% are willing to consider it.

But a mental health day, however well-meaning, is not a permanent solution to the chronic exhaustion, cynicism, and sense of ineffectiveness that are hallmarks of burnout. Nor can the occasional extra day off reach below the surface where conditions such as anxiety and depression reside. If we are to improve worker mental health and address widespread burnout, we need to make much bigger changes to the American way of working.

It’s true that working less, in general, can help prevent burnout. According to psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, the authors of the new book, workload is one of six key aspects of a job in which a “mismatch” between a person and their job can lead to burnout. The challenge of burnout, who have been at the forefront of burnout research for decades. Other researchers have found that taking more days off per month is associated with a lower prevalence of burnout among healthcare workers. A 2014 study found that doctors in Japan who had two to four days off per month had more than three times the risk of burnout compared to those who had eight or more days off.

But the first problem with Mental Health Day is that no one seems to agree on the specifics of what it’s all about. For some workers, it is an official pool of paid time off that they can draw on at will. Others, whose employer policy may not provide such a leave, claim the occasional mental health day as a kind of de facto sick leave. Either way, the fundamental problem is that an odd day off is not the same as an ever-lighter schedule. This is a band-aid, not a long-term solution that would make a worker’s day-to-day life more manageable. It might not even reduce someone’s workload, if they have to overload themselves after or before their rest. “The occasional mental health day is great,” Leiter told me in an email, “but it has little impact on burnout. If people go back to the same mismatches that led them to burnout, a little free time will be a little fluff.

We might then think of a mental health day as a form of workplace avoidance dressed in the language of self-care. One of the only academic papers on workers taking mental health days looked at nurses and midwives in the Australian state of New South Wales, which includes Sydney. Researchers found that nurses who said they had taken what they described as a mental health day in the previous 12 months were more likely to be shift workers, spending a large proportion of their working hours on their feet , experiencing abuse at work and feeling less accomplished at work due to emotional issues. In short, nurses who took mental health days had serious difficulties at work and, unsurprisingly, were 55% more likely to plan to leave their jobs. In this case, the employees’ need for a mental health day meant a bigger issue in the workplace.

Australian nurses who took mental health days were also 42% more likely to have symptoms of a common mental disorder, such as anxiety and depression. Taking individual days off as the only way to deal with these symptoms can be its own kind of risk. Saige Subosits, a psychotherapist in Pittsburgh, told me that mental health days aren’t a “quick fix” for people with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. In fact, if they avoid work out of fear without taking other steps to treat their condition, returning to work could become even more difficult, Subosits said. She added that going to therapy can be a healthy reason for regularly missing work. But it’s therapy, not free time, that helps someone improve.

The central problem is that mental health days are an intermediate concept, inadequate to deal with two quite different problems. People with common mental illnesses benefit the most from sustained treatment such as therapy, not the occasional day off. Plus, everyone deserves enough vacation days to recharge and a culture of taking time without apologizing. Perhaps the rise of mental health days reveals that we have devalued leisure so much that we can only justify time off by appealing to some abstract, vague notion of well-being that is supposed to make us best workers.

Here’s another way to think about free time: “Any day off is a sanity day,” Steve Unger, a 37-year-old telecommunications engineer in Little Rock, Arkansas, told me. Unger said he had no diagnosis of mental illness and felt no desire to avoid his job. “I never felt like I didn’t want to do it today,” he said. When he takes what he calls a mental health day, as he did eight Fridays in a row earlier this year, he can spend time with his family or run a 10-mile run. Usually he goes into such a day with no “intentions, no chores, no expectations of what I have to accomplish during this day”.

Unger’s day off activities align with today’s conventional wisdom about mental health days: that people should spend them on classic hobbies. In the survey published on Parents, only 23% of respondents whose children took mental health days said they spent part of the day seeing a mental health professional; 37% of children made art or music, and 30% spent time in nature.

For many students and workers, Mental Health Day is simply a request for time that is not determined by work. In a Parents Reporting the survey results, a high school student said she couldn’t afford to take a mental health day, even though her mother would allow it. ” Inasmuch as [International Baccalaureate] student, the thought of missing school is truly terrifying,” the student said. His daily volume of school work seems impossible to catch up after an absence. She said her coping strategy is to “go until I get a little low and then I have to stop.”

If going to school is so intense, it is the school that needs to change, not the student. The same logic applies to work. As John W. Budd, a professor of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota, told me in an email, Mental Health Days “do not change, or even challenge, the nature of work that causes excessive stress and other mental health problems.

To address burnout on a large scale, therefore, we need to look at the job itself. Employers should assign manageable workloads with plenty of built-in days off. Unger said he has seven personal days and 25 vacation days this year, and his employer has few barriers to taking them. As a society, we should also be open to trying new work structures – four-day work weeks, for example, which can reduce burnout without sacrificing productivity. Free time from work is a good thing. But workers deserve much better than a mental health day: jobs that don’t put a strain on their mental health.

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