Towards true parity of sick leave

The Covid-19 pandemic should lead to employers and staff having a more honest conversation about mental health.

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The idea of getting “back to normal” after the coronavirus pandemic has eased is a misnomer. While lockdown measures may have tested UK society economically and emotionally, they have at least allowed time for reflection. And there must be a new normal now; the old one wasn’t working.

Through mass home-working, the stress and anxiety-inducing culture of presenteeism that pervaded many UK workplaces has been exposed as excessive. Jobs that employees were told would be impossible to do from home have quickly become possible to do remotely, using technologies that already existed well before social distancing was introduced.

Meanwhile, the universalism of poor mental health, and how easily anyone can be affected by it, has been a constant in the news cycle, with regular ONS figures updating our understanding of the nation’s wellbeing. Even before the pandemic, the conversation around workplace mental health, whether for employees in the office or at home, required both more urgency and more honesty.

It is not enough to parrot the line that a happy workforce is a productive workforce if companies are not taking active steps to ensure that this is the case. The answer does not lie in either having an office presence or home-working – there are merits to both – but rather in striking a balance between the two. Positive flexibility can help employees to stay on top of their everyday chores and responsibilities that, when managed alongside a rigid nine to five schedule, can sometimes overwhelm and lead to greater stress.

But where stress, depression, anxiety or any other form of mental health issue does become too much to cope with, organisations should encourage frank conversations. Ostensibly, despite the government’s insistence that mental health problems should have parity with physical ones, public perception has not changed. A survey carried out by People Management last year found that 65 per cent of UK workers had pretended to have a cold or headache when they took a day off, rather than admitting that they needed time to look after their mental health. Of the 65 per cent who had lied about why they were off sick, nearly a third (27 per cent) believed that their bosses would not be understanding, or that they could face some sort of disciplinary action for doing so.

In reality, there is no legal difference between a sick day taken for poor mental health and one taken due to a physical ailment. Yet too many employees still shy away from giving themselves the time they need for self-care, while too many companies are clearly still perpetuating a needless stigma.

The British stiff upper lip needs to be replaced with an arm around the shoulder. Rather than getting “back to normal”, then, the UK’s ambition should be to do things differently, more flexibly, and better. The criteria for what constitutes an acceptable reason for a mental health sick day should be decided personally. Any company worth its salt should understand that.

You can read the full Spotlight Mental Health Supplement here.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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