Mental Health Days and Leave Policies: What Works?

I saw a link to She took a day off to focus on mental health. Her CEO’s response has gone viral several times last week before I finally clicked on it. I had suspected, before I read the post, that I would love it. I did love it, but it also raised questions and generated dialogue among my Facebook friends beyond “wow that’s great.”

In summary, when Madalyn Parker advised her co-workers that she would be out of the office, she was transparent about the fact that she hoped the time off would help her cope with depression and return to work more focused and mentally healthy.

In a follow-up post, Parker’s boss, Ben Congleton, said this:

I cannot believe that it is still controversial to speak about mental health in the workplace when 1 in 6 americans are medicated for mental health.

Destigmatizing Mental Health

First, I agree with Parker and Congleton that mental health should be treated no differently than a physical ailment such as an infection or broken bone.

This infographic from Deloitte lays it out well:

Workplace Mental Health

My acquaintance Pauline said in a recent post about her mental health diagnoses:

The stigma that came with each diagnosis was reinforced by the fact that pretending everything was okay was the only option.

 

Policies about Leave Time are a Inconsistent and Challenging

While Parker’s specific story resonated with me, a tweet about it on Twitter activated a different personal emotional hot spot. Here’s the tweet:

Workplace Mental Health

It didn’t hit a hot spot because of Cohen’s question/opinion, but it hit a hot spot because I worked for years at a place I loved, but a place which didn’t have separate sick leave vs personal leave for years (a split between the two types of leave was adopted eventually).

I suppose my breakdown of the issues related to how leave policies are defined would be something for a different post (or a human resources professional), but here are the immediate emotions/thoughts it unlocked.

When you have an “all the leave hours in one bucket” policy, you may be more likely to go to work sick because you want to save your leave time for either discretionary activities (like vacations) OR for your children’s illnesses, for maternity leave, or for obligations. An all-in-one policy is also somewhat unfair for people with children (who have to take off for their children’s illnesses), for people who may have more severe health issues who have to use that leave time for medical reasons and don’t get to take as much “fun” time off.

I know the above paragraph may not sound like it’s about mental health, but it certainly was for me. Once I spent all my leave time on maternity leave (the organization subsequently acquired short-term disability policies, which helped some), there was very little time left to take care of me. 

More About Leave Time

It is so easy for us to get in a bubble about the topic of leave. One friend, who works in retail, said this:

I would never think of saying such a thing as that to my boss. At a previous job in retail, I learned that the ever-changing shift work was setting off so many triggers with my condition, I requested and received an ADA compensation that I have regularly set hours. The management were forced to meet the requirement but they gossiped about my diagnosis, and used it against me until the day I left. I can’t take that chance again.

This topic brought up so many other rapidly ricocheting thoughts in my brain.

I thought about all the enrollees’ families (mostly moms, but dads too) I talked to in two decades at Healthy Kids who could. not. leave. their. hourly wage jobs (many in retail, as my friend alludes to above) to take a child to the doctor (even if they had transportation), to take care of their own physical health (much less mental) without risking getting fired.

THEN, my mind went to the people I have met in Central America who would, I am pretty sure, just find it laughable, absolutely not an option, and downright hilarious that we worry about “having time off to center ourselves.” The ability to do something, ANYTHING, to earn enough to feed their family for the day, the walking for hours and having to fend off violence and shakedowns just to get, for example, fish to sell, is such a far cry from the experiences many of us here in America have.

My Personal Experiences

I mentioned above the effects of an all-in-one-bucket leave policy, but I also can truly and honestly say I have never taken a mental health day. That is not necessarily a good thing, but I haven’t.

I think one of the reasons I have never taken a mental health day is the fact that I was afraid I would never go back! Something about forcing myself to go to work, to push through, was a better strategy for ME (not for everyone). I wasn’t sure what a mental health day would do. I think I was afraid a day would turn into a week and I would fall farther down into whatever hole drew me to take one day off in the first place.

The Whole Person Matters

Last week, I wrote about the Ignatian-Jesuit concept of Cura Personalis, or “care for the whole person.” None of us are “just employees.” We bring so much more to work with us (and I must mention that approximately 40% of us are contingent workers, so we have even more vague boundaries than ever before).

If supervisors don’t recognize that mental health is integral to our well-being at work, and if we don’t learn to articulate what we need (and if workplace policies and government regulations don’t provide a safe space to do that), something will be lost.

Hopefully what’s lost won’t be our minds……

Workplace Mental Health

Editor’s Note: I shared this post with Ben Congleton (Madalyn’s boss) and here’s what he said (7/28/17) — I am inspired all over again:

Hi Paula,

Thank you for your kind words, and for continuing the conversation. I’ve been encouraged by the power that a simple act of gratitude has had to create more dialog around mental health in the workplace. It was Madalyn’s courage that made all this impact possible. I’ve been inspired by so many positive responses and I know there is more to do. I hope that my actions inspired more leaders to realize the impact they can have in their organizations. 

I see a future where talking about mental health will be as easy and as normal as talking about the flu.

Be human,
Ben

The Internship Dress Code Petition: My Opinion

When I first saw a Yahoo Style post about interns who got fired after protesting the dress code at work, my first thought wasn’t “oh there those millennials go again … when will they learn?”.

Disgruntlement Among Employees Is Multi-Generational

My first thought was about a different communication. It was different because it was anonymous (whereas the interns’ petition was signed by all but the one intern). It was different because it was composed by one individual (whose identity I still don’t know years later). Maybe that individual was a millennial; I will never know. It was different because instead of being presented to our Executive Director, it was mailed anonymously to every member of our organization’s board of directors. Yep.

My second thought was about a time much earlier in my career. Three of us peers were in roughly equivalent positions and shared responsibilities at the same area of the organization. Two of us grew frustrated with the other’s lack of carrying her share of the weight. We had planned an agenda for a meeting with our boss in which we would share our outrage that she was not pulling her weight and demand that something be done. Shortly before the meeting, my ally told me that she was being promoted, and did not want to proceed with our plan for concern that our expressions of disgruntlement would interfere with her promotion. I was angry at the time, but in retrospect I am so glad that our plan fell through. Telling our boss how our co-worker was failing (in our eyes) would have suggested that he wasn’t doing his job as a supervisor. 

My third thought was “this kind of thing would never happen at the Disney College Program (DCP). My daughter just finished her tenure at the DCP, and the appearance code is meticulous, strict, and unyielding. Is that right or fair? Maybe not, but there are so few applicants (relatively) who are accepted proportionate to the applications received, that a DCP’s appreciation for being there (and, by extension, their parents’) means they will correct the two-toned hair, cover up a tattoo every single day for work, buy the glasses with the basic frames. The list goes on and on.

Now Back to the Disgruntled Intern at the Heart of this Story

Let me recap the intern/dress code situation that got me going down this path. On June 28, Ask a Manager published a post titled I was fired from my internship for writing a proposal for a more flexible dress code. I first learned about the situation from the Yahoo Style post I referenced in the first paragraph. The only way I can process what the intern wrote in their letter to Ask a Manager is to point out the passages that pressed buttons for me (there are many!) and share my opinion.

Disgruntled Intern (DI): I was able to get a summer internship at a company that does work in the industry I want to work in after I graduate.

Big Green Pen (BGP): “Able” is the key here. Getting an internship is a privilege. This internship will provide payoffs in new learning, networking, and the opportunity to learn real-life applications of everything you’ve learned in school.

DI: Even though the division I was hired to work in doesn’t deal with clients or customers, there still was a very strict dress code.

Internship Problems

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

BGP: It may not make sense to get dressed up formally if a customer is not going to walk in the door. I can see that. Two thoughts: 1) There is some truth to the idea that the way you dress influences the way you act and 2) By agreeing to intern there, you accepted their “very strict dress code” and I would advise just dealing with it, being grateful for the payoffs in new learning, networking, and the opportunity to learn real-life applications of everything you’ve learned in school.

DI: I spoke with my manager about being allowed some leeway under the dress code and was told this was not possible, despite the other person being allowed to do it. [Note: DI had shared in their letter to Ask A Manager that there was one employee who wore shoes that were not aligned with the dress code.]

BGP: I don’t think I would even have done that (I’m not sure how long you had been there, but I probably wouldn’t have asked at all), but it sounds like you attempted to start with the appropriate place on the chain of command. Smart move. That said, when they said it was not possible, that should have been the end of the subject.

DI: I soon found out that many of the other interns felt the same way, and the ones who asked their managers about it were told the same thing as me. We decided to write a proposal stating why we should be allowed someone leeway under the dress code. We accompanied the proposal with a petition, signed by all of the interns (except for one who declined to sign it) and gave it to our managers to consider.

BGP: First of all, I would like to shake the hand of the one intern who declined to sign the petition. Secondly, one of the things I would have asked, were I one of your managers, would have been “wow, did they spend work time composing/writing/organizing this petition effort when they could have been doing the work related to the core of our business goals?”. Maybe you all did this on your personal time, and there are times when it is appropriate to do human resources-related tasks on the clock, but it would make me question your priorities. Thirdly, in case I haven’t been clear enough about this, I don’t agree with this strategy on your part.

DI: The next day, all of us who signed the petition were called into a meeting where we thought our proposal would be discussed. Instead, we were informed that due to our “unprofessional” behavior, we were being let go from our internships. We were told to hand in our ID badges and to gather our things and leave the property ASAP.

BGP: I agree with Alison from Ask a Manager that this was a pretty extreme reaction on your employer’s part, BUT it was their option to choose that reaction. In a perfect world, I would love for them to have used this as a teachable moment to explain why your strategy was so offensive to them and how, in the future, you could approach situations that you thought needed changing, but ultimately I imagine they may have doubted whether or not you would be receptive to this type of counseling and every moment they took away from the business to manage this situation was time away from the core purpose of of the organization, time away from making money (or providing services or whatever your particular organization did).

DI: The proposal was written professionally like examples I have learned about in school, and our arguments were thought out and well-reasoned. We weren’t even given a chance to discuss it.

BGP: Props to you for professional writing skills. Props to school for teaching you professional writing skills, and props for the ability to think through well-reasoned arguments. The thing they don’t teach you in school is how and when to share a proposal, or whether to share it at all. Sometimes the answer from a business is “you don’t even get a chance to discuss it.” That’s just the way it is.

DI: The worst part is that just before the meeting ended, one of the managers told us that the worker who was allowed to disobey the dress code was a former soldier who lost her leg and was therefore given permission to wear whatever kind of shoes she could walk in. You can’t even tell, and if we had known about this we would have factored it into our argument.

BGP: Well, there you go. Applause to your employer for accommodating the employee who needed an exception to the dress code due to her combat related injury sustained while serving our country. You say “if we had known about this we would have factored it into our argument.” It would have been nice if the several managers that several of you apparently approached about this issue had said, “sometimes we make accommodations for personal health issues (or whatever)” but a) they aren’t required to do that and b) did it occur to you they may have been trying to protect the privacy and dignity of your coworker who has a combat related injury sustained while serving our country? Lastly, as I said above, I don’t think you should have continued making the argument after the initial “no.”

DI: I have never had a job before (I’ve always focused on school) and I was hoping to gain some experience before I graduate next year. I feel my dismissal was unfair and would like to ask them to reconsider but I’m not sure the best way to go about it.

BGP: The fact that you’ve never had a job before is precisely why it was premature and ill-considered for you to proceed with your proposal/petition plan after the initial “no.” It’s great and fitting that you’ve focused on school, but the transition to the work world (part of which is an internship) is brand new territory. Just like you wouldn’t race a car in the Daytona 500 while still in Driver’s Ed, you shouldn’t take it upon yourself to change an organization’s dress code while still in your internship. The dismissal was drastic, not unfair. Alison of Ask a Manager is right: “it would be smart to write a letter to your manager explaining that you’ve learned from the situation and that you appreciate the opportunity they gave you and are sorry that you squandered it.” (And not to put words in Alison’s mouth, but she probably means REAL LETTER. On paper. With a return address, a “to” address, a stamp, and your honest to goodness most sincerely felt signature.)

To Repeat, This Is Not About “Kids These Days”

Many of the reactions to the intern/dress code post criticized millennials and young people as entitled, unwilling to pay their dues, and overly coddled. One Reddit thread I visited introduced me to the acronym SJW and shared lots of opinions about “day care babies,” the participation ribbon culture, and kids who have never been told no. Although I do see those types of struggles among millennials, as I pointed out in the example at the start of this blog, our “anonymous letter to the board” situation may have come from a millennial but since it was anonymous and our office included Millennials, Gen X, Gen Y, and Baby Boomers, I can’t assume. In that case, it wasn’t about demographics, it was about the sheer stupidity of thinking it would be constructive to air organizational dirty laundry and embarrass the Executive Director by using the “anonymous letter to the board” approach.

During grad school, I resigned from an internship when I was getting my Masters in Counseling and Human Systems. The supervision was (to my mind and the opinions of others) sporadic. I was not alone; several of us called this place the “Family Death Center” instead of its given name, the Family Life Center. At the time, I was told I would be able to return later. When I tried to return, I was told by the administrator in charge of interns, “I don’t have time to manage all that.” At the time, it seemed unfair. I had followed the procedures I had been given, and this felt arbitrary. But they had the power and I did not. In the “things happen for a reason” category, that inability to get re-hired is what led me to do an internship in Career Planning (thanks, FSU Career Center!) and my eventual position as Internship Coordinator at Fordham University.

Five or ten years from  now, the interns who created the dress code proposal/petition may put this whole situation in the “things happen for a reason” category.

I still want to hear from the one intern who declined. I’m guessing they were pretty busy after all those other interns were fired!

If you were in a position at that organization to respond to the interns’ proposal/petition, what would you have done?

thoughtful-thursdays4

Notes About Work, For My Teenager

Since my daughter has begun what I consider her first “real” job (non-babysitting, 20 hours a week, “traditional” office environment), I’ve been thinking a lot about my hopes for her as a member of the workforce. When she’s 48 and looking back on the career choices she has made, will she be happy? What follows is a mixture of reflections based on my experience.

School to Work

Connect With Whatever Makes Your Heart Sing

A friend of mine said once, “I work to fund my pastimes.” I get that, and occasionally over my career have thought, “I should have just done [insert very lucrative even if very unpleasant occupation], made a bunch of money, and then had flexibility in my 40s. The thing is, is it worth doing something you don’t love for ten years? five? two?

Ask Questions, More Than Once If You Need To

My mom started work very young (since she had fibbed about her age to get into kindergarten!). When she talks about her years working in Lake City, she really seems to have relished it. I remember her talking about the first time she took dictation, and she got out to her typewriter and realized that she had failed to comprehend most of it. She went back in to her supervisor and admitted that she needed a “do-over.” I can only imagine the gumption it took for a young woman in the 1950s professional environment to tell her male boss that she needed to start over. I heard her echo in my voice when my daughter and I were discussing a project at work, when I said, “it’s okay to ask if you don’t ‘get it.'”

The Team Matters

I don’t know what kind of work place my daughter will have ten or twenty years from now. Will she be working remotely, from her laptop? Will she be traipsing the earth? Something tells me she won’t be in a traditional office or cubby. Regardless of where or how she works, I hope she has a team she loves being a part of. No team is perfect, and good teams can “turn bad” with a change in leadership or organizational mission. But whether it’s writing code, caring for patients, teaching children, or digging ditches, if the team you’re a part of is not generally happy to be moving toward a common mission, and supporting one another along the way, you’re playing for an emotional loss.

Values

Time and again the choices you make will come down to your values, personally and professionally. You have values as an individual: the things that help you draw the line between what you will do and what you won’t do. You will be faced with ethical choices (is it okay to backdate an invoice one day but not okay to completely fabricate an invoice that never existed?). You will be faced with choices to lead in the workplace (are you going to laugh at a joke that is told at the expense of another? are you going to seek out someone who has great potential but just needs a bit of encouragement and help them?). Most importantly, you will be faced with figuring out where it all fits in to your life as an individual.

Family

You may decide not to have a family. You may decide to get married but not have kids. You may decide to have one child or six. I will always struggle with the image I portrayed of working: acting stressed; pulling up to the daycare screaming that my boss was going to be mad if I was late so GET OUT OF THE CAR AND GET MOVING! I suppose it would have been false to pretend that work is a daisy path of pleasantries but I hope by my choices I haven’t snuffed out your optimism that you can find a place that challenges you and gives you the flexibility to have whatever configuration of family life you end up with. (But if you find yourself screaming at your kids to GET OUT OF THE CAR AND GET MOVING! I really encourage an intervention! It’s not worth the stress…for anyone involved.)

In Closing

I know it’s stressful to go to school all morning, to get changed into professional clothes, and then to be immersed in the world of human resources all afternoon. It must be like drinking from a fire hose. It makes me think ahead to some morning 10 years down the road, 15, 20 —- as you approach retirement. Will you wake up, on balance, excited for the day, knowing you are doing something that you feel competent at, among people you care about, where the little drudgework things that accompany all jobs are far outweighed by the joy of channeling your talents toward a fulfilling purpose?

I’ve used the quote below before (in this post), but it still sums up my wish for you:

When you live your passion, there is no line dividing what you do and who you are.  They are one. – Leigh Caraccioli