And yes, this is a click-baity post title

By Christopher Girodat, executive director

It’s #BellLetsTalk day, and everyone on the North Vancouver campus of Capilano University (a place I feel very privileged to work at) is talking about mental health. We’re talking about mental health broadly, in terms of this national day of dialogue, but also about the mental health of post-secondary students in particular – partnering with the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations on the Students Let’s Act campaign.

I want to share some thoughts about “mental health days.” As executive director at the Capilano Students’ Union, I lead a team of 15 or so incredible people. I’ve been managing people for more than 10 years now in a couple of capacities, and there’s something about how people (workers included) approach “mental health days” that I think needs to be called out for discussion. (These are my personal thoughts, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Capilano Students’ Union, just to be clear.)

When someone calls in sick because of their physical health, things always seem super straightforward. They call or email, say something like “I’ve got a cold, sorry, not going to make it in,” and then everyone accepts the explanation and moves on with the day. If someone has a cold, a migraine, hurt an ankle, or whatever other physical maladies might have befallen them, it always seems super straightforward. Workers (at least when there’s job security and paid sick leave) seem comfortable enough doing it.

When it comes to mental health, though, it seems to be a different story.

When someone needs to take a day away from work because of their mental health, it’s rare that the explanation is so straightforward. Because of the stigma around mental health, I’ve found that the explanation is usually super elaborate, and includes way more personal information than an employee would share about a physical ailment. Let’s be clear, this practice is a real-life demonstration of stigma surrounding mental health.

Some workplaces use the term “mental health days” to address this sort of thing. There’s “sick days,” and then “mental health days.” Why is that? Why are we pretending that a tough mental health day should be treated any differently, from a workplace perspective, than we would treat tough physical health days? When’s the last time someone said “I think I’m going to need to stay home, I need a physical health day”? Answer: They wouldn’t say that, they would just – validly – say “Sorry, I’m sick today.”

Mental health is important. Folks who decide they need to stay home because their mental health won’t to allow them to work, that feeling – and their determination of whether they’re fit to report to work – is valid. It’s correct. They deserve to be able to just “call in sick,” treated in every respect as though they were calling in sick for any physical reason out there, without doing some sort of special “mental health day” dance, with an essay to their employer justifying why their mental health should count for something.

My ask to employers, managers, and supervisors out there:

Acknowledge that physical and mental health are both just “health,” and adjust your leave policies so that you treat sick leave the same for both. Don’t inadvertently add to the stigma toward mental health by making it seem different. Also, make sure that you actually provide enough leave for your team members to take care of themselves.

My ask to workers:

Next time you need a day off for your mental health, just call in sick like you would if you had a cold. Resist the temptation to justify your health needs, in a way that you would never do with a physical ailment. (Obviously, consider your personal circumstances before you do that – if you’re precariously employed, or you have a garbage workplace, I absolutely understand that you might not be in a position to do this.)

The idea here isn’t to stop talking about mental health – on the contrary. We need to be talking about mental health as a legitimate health issue that is on par with physical health. If we all do our part to reframe the dialogue on mental health as a reason to take time off, then we can make some serious progress breaking down the stigma that folks still face when voicing and acting upon their mental health experiences.