The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates 45 per cent of Australians between the ages of 16 and 85 will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.
Many carry these conditions with them to and from the workplace: a report by beyondblue found one in five Australians have taken time off work in the past 12 months to manage mental health issues, the most common of which were anxiety disorders, affective disorders (e.g. mood disorders like depression) and substance use disorders.
And some are caused or exacerbated by the workplace. “As people work longer, and harder, there’s less time to spend recovering from work, less time to sleep, less time to eat properly, and we’re seeing the effect of that in the high incidence of mental illness caused by the workplace,” says Alex Grayson, an employment lawyer with Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.
Employees are protected from discrimination based on mental health conditions under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth). According to Heads Up, an organisation working with beyondblue to promote psychologically healthy workplaces, legally a mental health disability can cover conditions that an employee has experienced in the past, present or future, are temporary or permanent, and are actual or just assumed.
Grayson says employees do not have to disclose a mental health condition to a current or prospective employer, but does caution about answering dishonestly. If you are asked about existing mental health conditions in an interview, you can question the relevancy of such a question to the job’s requirements. If you do disclose to an employer that you have a mental health condition, they are obliged to respect your privacy and not distribute that information to anyone without your consent.
The legal crux of managing mental health in the workplace comes down to two concepts: whether the employee can meet the ‘inherent requirements’ of the job, and whether the employer makes ‘reasonable adjustments’ to those requirements to ensure the employee can still work.
When taking, and talking about, mental health days, it’s important to make the distinction between looking after your mental health and wanting a day off. You don’t have to have a diagnosed medical condition to take one, the aim of it is preventative: to help prevent stress becoming a mental health issue.
If you’re not sure whether you need a mental health day, some warning signs to look out for are:
Physical: Having consistent colds and flus, headaches and migraines, gastrointestinal conditions, major body tension, significant weight loss or gain, mouth ulcers, adult acne, psoriasis or other skin conditions.
Mood: Feeling angry, irritable, low frustration tolerance, reactive, tearful or anxious.
Behaviour:Pulling away, disconnecting from others, not feeling like you’ve got much energy to devote to work, performance changes, making simple errors, mind being off the job, having more accidents, being irritable or grumpy with colleagues.
Thoughts: Feelings disillusioned, disgruntled, catastrophising, personalising things you wouldn’t normally, feeling pessimistic or negative.
One way to head off a meltdown or burnout is to take your holiday time strategically. If you know you have a big project or presentation due, plan in advance to take time away from work after the job is done. If it helps to think of it as mental-health time off, consider it as such – whatever gets you to use all your holiday time will benefit your overall health.
The upside of this kind of scheduling is that on those tough days at work you can look forward to the days off, and you won’t surprise your co-workers by needing time off on short notice. You can also plan your own work around your days off so you won’t come back to a pile of tasks, which can feel overwhelming.
Spend the day doing what’s right for you
There’s no one way to spend a mental health day. Maybe what you need is to catch up on sleep, see a supportive friend or attend a yoga class.
If self-care activities don’t cut it, mental health days are a great opportunity to touch base with a healthcare professional.
As much as you may want to, try not to spend the day vegging out and catching up on all the shows you never have time to watch from working such long hours. A mental health day should be designed to give your mind, body, and spirit just what it’s craving most. Professionals recommends a combination of depression and anxiety reducing activities, like spending time with a friend or family member, laughing, squeezing in an outdoor workout, and even scoring some sleep if you’ve been skimping lately. Both experts agree you should avoid unhealthy activities that will deplete your mind and body further, including isolating yourself or drinking all day (we know, beers are tempting!).
The transport industry is one of the industries most effected by physical injuries, however the statistics around mental health are lesser known. The industry is recognised for being a robust and masculine crowd, which increases the importance of mental health awareness.
You don’t have to have a diagnosed mental health condition in order to need time and space to rest and recuperate. Built up stress and fatigue can lead to physical and mental heath conditions which can impact your productivity and safety at work.
Please look after your physical and mental health and know that help is there when you ask for it.