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

One Afghan, Many Roles

Ever since I worked at Fordham University, I have aced any trivia question that involves the word “sesquicentennial.” I was fortunate enough to be a Fordham employee when the university celebrated its 150th birthday in 1991. As part of the celebration, we were given commemorative blankets depicting the university.

I wonder who was the first person to touch the threads that became part of these blankets, who wove them into finished products, how many people were part of their journey to the Bronx and into my hands.

I loved my Fordham blanket. It followed me back to Tallahassee after Wayne and I got married and had a prominent place in our living room. It wasn’t just decorative, though; it comforted me through many naps and illnesses.

The Blanket and Dad

At some point during Wayne’s dad’s stay with us over the past three years, the Fordham blanket became his go-to covering as he sat in his chair and watched tv. I can’t say I was especially happy about this turn of events. The latter years for Dad were signified by a serious decline in his personal hygiene habits; at some point the blanket developed a hole in it. I, again, was not happy about this but put the blanket’s downfall into the “it is what it is” category. We had too many other things going on to fret about it.

In the couple of weeks prior to Dad’s move to Hospice House, he started carrying blankets with him from the chair to his bed, security-blanket style. Anything near was fair game. The Fordham blanket especially, but if there was another blanket around, it went too.

About ten days before his move to Hospice House, on a Saturday, Dad sat for lengthy periods of time, pulling individual threads of the Fordham blanket out, obsessively. I’m sure this was a signal of his cognitive decline. The Hospice nurses helped us adjust his anti-anxiety medications, which helped with the obsessiveness a bit, but the blanket was none the better for this episode.

A Final Comfort

When Dad’s condition declined so much (and space available in Hospice House allowed), he was moved there (on June 27). I wasn’t home, but I understand the nurse and social worker encouraged us to send the Fordham blanket with Dad to provide continued security.

Although I didn’t really plan to circulate them, I did take pictures each of the five nights I visited Dad before he passed away, mainly in case family members wanted to see them, as difficult as they were to view.

The Fordham blanket was always front and center, providing comfort. This is an edited picture of my last visit, hours before he passed away.

Life Reflections

I *may* have asked Wayne (husband) more than once to double check that the Fordham blanket made it back to us from Hospice House after Dad died. (We still have a pair of “inherited” sweatpants that came home with Dad after his respite stay there in April — dear family out there looking for the tan sweatpants — we’ll hang onto them for you!)

Earlier in Kiger Family History

As I have been going through old pictures looking for photos of Dad, I ran across a picture from twenty years ago, a different time in the Fordham blanket’s lifecycle with us. It was a time of new beginnings, before Tenley (now 21) was six months old.

Life Reflections

(Oh, the cuteness!)

At six months, Tenley was already going to my in-laws every day. They took care of her until she was two years old. She was thriving. She was loved. My father-in-law and I had relatively diametrically opposed ideas about child care, but at no point was she not cared for with love by two people who were also helping us avoid the financial drain of child care.

Thanks, Jesuits (and Ignatians) for Cura Personalis

As I was looking up a few details about Fordham and the Sesquicentennial Celebration for this post, I ran across the concept of “cura personalis” on the university website.

This is an excerpt of what IgnatianSpiritality.com has to say (but I encourage you to read the entire post):

Little is written about the Ignatian-Jesuit characteristic of cura personalis, which is Latin for “care for the whole person.” Cura personalis comes down to the respect for all that makes up each individual. As St. Paul reminds us, “the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…” (1 Corinthians 12:12)

I can’t say I ever heard the term “cura personalis” during my time at Fordham. (I also must admit I was quite focused on the thrills of Manhattan and the Bronx — I did do my job as Internship Coordinator to the best of my ability and fell in love with Fordham while developing a deeper respect for the Jesuit approach …. but NYC held much of my focus!).

Somehow, though, the idea of cura personalis is a fit for the journey the Fordham blanket has taken, from the time I acquired it in 1991, through my marriage, to the time it lay under my infant, to the time it comforted my father-in-law as he passed from his earthly life.

Where will the blanket end up?

I don’t know where the blanket itself will be 150 years from now. Maybe my great grandchildren will transfer it from home to home, use it for various purposes, reflect back on how “this once belonged to great-grandma Paula.”

My hopes are that, if it survives, it will never be a “hands-off” showpiece, something people don’t touch, but rather something that brings comfort, security, and joy.

Something that does what cura personalis envisions: serving not just the intellect, but the heart, body, and whole person.

Life Reflections

Editor’s note: Yes, I titled this “afghan” and then referred to the item as a blanket throughout. Choose a preference; hopefully the sentiment makes sense either way!