Balancing Respect for Mental Health and Work Commitments

It’s important to train managers to talk through mental health concerns with employees.

When gymnast Simone Biles, and earlier this year, tennis player Naomi Osaka, withdrew from elite competition, they were largely applauded for prioritizing their mental health. I, too, was glad to see they were taking care of both their mental and physical selves.

But as I was working on an upcoming article on training Generation Z for the health trade publication, where I am editor, I started to wonder. I didn’t wonder whether it was a good thing to care for yourself. The question that came to mind is what lessons young people will take from Biles’ and Osaka’s example.

The doctor whose article I was editing noted the “unique and wildly inappropriate” conception of work schedules and attendance exhibited by the individuals in their twenties he recently hired. He cited many instances of these young people texting their manager early in the morning that they would not be coming that day, not because they were ill, but because they hadn’t slept well the night before, or for another reason outside of sickness or emergency. These kinds of days off are sometimes referred to as “mental health days.” There are many days I can recall pushing myself out of bed against all of my instincts when I wasn’t physically ill, but really, really did not feel like doing work. I bet many of you can recall many days like that, too. Maybe today was one of those days!

I then started wondering how an employer can best balance expecting employees to honor their work commitments with concerns for their mental health. What happens when you open the door to employees getting a pass on coming to work and following through on work commitments whenever they don’t feel psychologically up to it? There are those who will only use the option of withdrawing from commitments if a true mental health emergency arises, and there are likely others who will use the option to take advantage of their colleagues and employer. How do you know the difference? Is it a matter of how often the option is taken, with the employee who pleads mental health once in a great while as a reason for not doing work given an OK, but the employee who is a serial “mental health” pleader reprimanded? These are subjective judgments that a manager may need guidance weeding through.

In the case of the doctor with the young staff who frequently come up with same-day excuses outside of physical illness for why they can’t come in, a solution was found that made a difference. He now requires employees to speak with the manager when asking for an impromptu day off, rather than texting or e-mailing. The manager then is able to have an exchange that illuminates what’s going on with the employee: Are they physically ill? Do they need to see a doctor? How many days does the employee think they will be out for? Are they having a personal crisis in their lives? If so, what is their estimate for how long they think they will be out of the office?

A big part of being supportive of employees’ mental health, while not creating a work escape hatch, is communication. Managers may need to be trained on having these conversations—the conversations that are necessary when an employee, who is not physically ill and does not have an emergency, is asking not to come to work. It might be useful to have your organization consult with a psychologist on a set of questions managers can use in these situations.

As a person who was not trained as psychologist, questions I would ask include:

  • “Are you OK?”
  • “Is there anything you feel comfortable sharing about what’s happening in your life right now?”
  • “Is there any way that you feel your experience in our office, working for our company, has negatively impacted how you feel?”

That last question may unlock the whole puzzle. The employee may be feeling overwhelmed by stress and an unrealistic workload. They may be experiencing pressure from what I call a “work martyr,” a colleague who, without being required to, works until 10 p.m. every night, and on the weekends, and makes sure everyone knows. The problem arises when the martyr is working with a colleague who does not want to live the same way. That colleague can feel pressured to mirror the martyr’s unhealthy (and usually unnecessary) overwork routines.

Sometimes the solution for an employee who doesn’t feel they can psychologically manage coming to work is right-sizing the work tendencies of a compulsive, perfectionist colleague: “Sue, we greatly respect and appreciate the work you put in, but the afterhours work schedule you maintain is not a requirement of the job, and it is not something your colleagues will necessarily want to emulate. Let me know if you want to sit down with me to work out a more manageable way of completing your work.”

Pressures can come as strongly from colleagues as from managers. Training that shows managers how to monitor the 360-degree pressures employees experience is helpful. It’s also helpful to train managers to talk through mental health concerns with employees, both to find solutions and know when it’s not mental health, but another issue, keeping the employee from work.

How do you walk the line between providing mental health support and ensuring employees follow through on work commitments?