While employees may not think twice about calling in sick due to physical illness, the same probably can’t be said for emotional or mental illness.
When employees feel stressed, overwhelmed or anxious, this can lead to disengagement from work, a decrease in productivity, and a rise in workplace absence, disputes and conflict. Likewise, employees suffering depression, panic attacks or other mental health issues can only benefit from time off dedicated to recovery.
Many employers are taking a proactive approach to reducing the risk of employee stress and burnout, with initiatives such as mental health days. Mental health days are becoming increasingly popular given the growing recognition of good mental health at work and as employers look to enhance their employer brand among job applicants.
But mental health days won’t always be suitable or appropriate for all types of jobs, workplaces or organisations.
In this guide for employers, we take a practical look at mental health days and other ways employers can support employees’ mental wellbeing.
What is a mental health day?
A mental health day is time off work to allow the worker time to rest, relax and avoid burnout, with no questions asked by the employer. If an employee doesn’t feel well enough to come into work due to their mental health, they can use a duvet day to allow them time and space to decompress.
The purpose of a mental health day is to promote self-care and support employees in addressing mental health issues, allowing them to bring their most productive and positive selves to work.
Also known as ‘duvet days’, mental health days are effectively ad hoc annual leave days. Depending on the employer’s rules, duvet days may not require advance authorisation and may not come out of the worker’s annual leave or sickness entitlement. In practice, this means employees can usually take a mental health day by contacting their manager to advise they won’t be coming in to work, without the need to get permission in advance as they would for annual leave, or to give a reason as they would for a sick day.
While a duvet day out of the office may impact productivity on a short term basis, in the longer term, prioritising mental health is likely to result in less stress-related absence and improved employee engagement and performance and a healthier workplace culture.
Key considerations for employers
Employers are legally obliged to safeguard the health, safety and wellbeing of their workforce and to provide a safe working environment. This applies both to physical and mental wellbeing. Duvet days are becoming increasingly common as employers look to promote workplace mental wellbeing.
More employers are also offering mental health days to promote a more inclusive and supportive working environment, which also helps to enhance the organisation’s appeal among job applicants.
If you are considering allowing mental health days, it will be important to develop a policy that sets out the rules and expectations, and ensures fair and consistent use in areas such as:
- Notifying the employer: be clear on how, when and who the employee should inform of their duvet day.
- General ground rules: depending on the workplace and role, you may need to impose conditions such as having adequate team cover and ensuring deadlines are met. This may mean only allowing duvet days during certain periods or when other team members aren’t already on annual leave.
- How many days will you offer: most employers offer 2 or 3 duvet days per year. These could be taken from or be in addition to annual leave entitlement – you should make this clear in your policy. You should also be clear on whether mental health days are paid or unpaid.
Supporting mental health days
While employees should be informed about the availability of mental health days, it’s helpful for employers to encourage employees to make the most of the time off work to reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing. This can be done by encouraging employees to set objectives for the day to help them feel they have accomplished something and taken maximum benefit from their time away from work.
Goals could be as simple as sleeping in and eating well. Sleep is a critical element of good mental health. Duvet days should be used to rest and allow the worker to benefit from a good night’s sleep and to nap if their energy levels are low, particularly in the afternoon. Encourage the worker to do something they enjoy and that makes them happy. It could be as simple as reading a book or going for a walk.
Promoting positive mental health at work
While mental health days are one way to help nurture a supportive and inclusive environment, employers should take a more strategic and comprehensive approach to have real impact on reducing burnout and stress and improving workplace mental wellbeing.
Employers have a duty to ensure that, as far as possible, the workplace environment does not cause or exacerbate mental illness. Understanding if and how workers are at risk of workplace stress and mental health issues is the first place to start when devising an organisation-wide approach to mental wellbeing.
The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) ‘Stress Management Standards’ highlights workers, types of jobs or work environments which may indicate an elevated risk of harm to mental health.
Mental wellbeing policy
A mental wellbeing policy is an important tool in both promiting the importance of good mental health and ensuring consistent and correct implementation of mental wellbeing tools and initiatives. The policy should cover matters such as how to request time off for mental health, how many mental health days employees can take a year, who the policy applies to – eg employees but not contractors – and signpost to professional support such as any available Employee Assistance Programme.
It will be important to promote the policy so that employees are aware of the support available and that they feel comfortable asking for help or taking time off for their mental wellbeing.
Stigma still remains around mental health. Efforts should be made to reduce any embarrassment for employees asking for help. This could involve a wider campaign to change mindsets around mental wellness and communicating to the workforce that there is no shame in prioritising mental health by taking a duvet day.
Employees should be encouraged to talk about their mental health and if mental health days are offered – to take time off when needed.
Managers should be sympathetic, accommodating and avoid using stigmatised language. They ashould also be informed on how to signpost employees to professional support.
Management should also lead by example and demonstrate good self-care for their own mental wellbeing.
The result will be a more understanding and nurturing organisational culture, and a more engaged and productive workforce.
Provision of occupational health services such as through an Employee Assistance Programme, can be highly effective in dealing with stress and other mental health problems as it can provide immediate access for employees to professional support.
Managers are in the best position to monitor the wellbeing of their team and recognise when they may be struggling and need a mental break. Training managers on how to spot potential employee stress and or mental wellbeing issues can help to build a supportive culture and working environment.
Signs often include:
- Chronic fatigue – feeling tired is a common complaint of modern life, but if someone is complaining of chronic fatigue without any obvious cause (such as caring for a young child), they may be suffering mental or emotional issues.
- Decreased productivity – if a manager notices an individual’s productivity is declining on a sustained basis, and there is no obvious reason why, there should be a discussion to understand if there are any problems and if the organisation can provide support.
- Over-reliance on caffeine or stimulants – if a team member seems to only be to function with potentially excessive consumption of stimulants such as coffee or energy drinks, there may be an underlying problem.
- Difficulty focusing – this is when someone is noticeably losing focus or concentration or seems distracted on a frequent basis.
- Behaving out of character – if someone is struggling with their mental health or is mentally exhausted, they may start to act out of character; they may become less tolerant or resilient and seem more emotional than usual.
Managers are not expected to resolve the issues or to provide mental health advice – it is more about recognising when someone seems to be struggling, knowing how to talk to them, showing empathy and signposting to appropriate professional support.
Role of HR
Depending on the culture of the organisation and the individual relationships between managers and their team members, people may feel more comfortable taking to HR about mental health issues. HR should therefore lead the way in being trained and informed in supporting open discussions about mental wellbeing.
Supporting mental wellbeing is an ongoing concern. To understand the impact of your organisation’s efforts, ensure effective records are kept of duvet days taken and compare these against data for sickness absence levels, staff retention and attrition rates and performance metrics.
Also take regular feedback from your workforce on how supported they feel and if there is more or anything different you could be doing to help promote positive mental wellbeing.
For expert advice on supporting mental health matters in the workplace, contact our HR specialists.
Mental health at work day FAQs
Can you have a mental health day off work?
Employees who are not able to work as a result of their poor mental health are entitled to the statutory sick pay benefits.
How do I ask for a day off work for mental health?
If your employer offers mental health days, follow the rules on how to ask for the time off. Otherwise, if you are feeling unwell due to mental health issue, you should follow the organisation's sickness absence procedure and notify your employer of your absence and the reason you need to take time off work.
Are mental health days a legal requirement?
Employers are not legally required to offer specific mental health days. If you are unwell, either physically or due to mental health, you are entitled to take the time off work sick. You should follow your employer's rules on sickness absence.
Last updated: 17 April 2023