Mental health days: do they work?

Employees of the Chinese supermarket chain Pang Dong Lai have been offered up to 10 days of “unhappiness leave”, The Guardian reported. Should UK businesses offer a similar benefit?

For staff at Pang Dong Lai, unhappiness leave days can be taken when employees want, in addition to sick leave and holiday entitlement. Managers at Pang Dong Lai cannot refuse these requests.

In March 2024, the digital wellbeing business Headspace reported that 49% of HR professionals saw increased absences due to mental health in the last year. Work-related stress contributed to significant mental health issues for 40% of employees.

The Office for National Statistics reported that 2.8 million people are classed as economically inactive due to long-term sickness in the UK.

Kelly Tucker, founder of HR consultancy HR Star, said that mental health days could prevent some causes of long-term sickness.

She told HR magazine: “When employees take time off to deal with mental health issues, they are likely to return to work with greater focus and engagement.

“Mental health days can act as a preventive measure, helping employees manage stress before it leads to more serious health problems or burnout.

“Demonstrating care for employee wellbeing improves morale and strengthens loyalty, which can translate into increased work effort and reduced turnover.”

However, according to Tucker, if employers use mental health days, they must define them clearly, to avoid confusion and management problems.

Speaking to HR magazine, she added: “HR should start by defining what constitutes a mental health day and how it differs from regular sick leave or personal days. 

“Develop a formal policy that outlines the procedures for taking mental health days, including any notification requirements and the number of days available annually.”

She noted communications could be used to signpost the option for mental health days to employees: “HR can also collaborate with internal communications to regularly promote available mental health resources and reminders about the policy.”

Bar Huberman, HR strategy and practice manager at HR solutions provider Brightmine, told HR magazine that employers should take a data-based approach, to ensure that mental health days contribute to employee wellbeing.

She commented: “Where mental health days are offered to employees to take as and when they need it, monitoring the uptake should be added to wider absence monitoring, to make sure that there is a full picture of when absences have occurred and why.

“This allows for better intervention should it be needed.”

Huberman added that mental health days can be ineffective in isolation.

She said: “Mental health days should be a part of a wider wellbeing programme. Mental health is a complex issue which needs to be viewed and addressed more holistically, to support employees who are experiencing challenges. 

“For people with mental illness in particular, it is important that line managers are trained in how to support them as individuals, for example by making reasonable adjustments. It is unlikely that a day or two off work will address the cause of a mental health issue on its own.”

Simon Miller, international partnerships director at mental health platform Headspace, suggested that employers should ensure mental health day policies are inclusive of everyone.

He told HR magazine: “It’s also important that HR teams are not just providing space for those in need but also creating a work environment in which all individuals can thrive. 

“For example, not all employees may be in need of a ‘mental health day’, but rather a ‘mental wellness day’ in which they are encouraged to optimise their wellbeing. 

“At Headspace we’ve implemented MINDays every other Friday, offering employees a four-day week every other week. This initiative provides employees time where they can invest in their own positive mental wellbeing, whatever that may look like for them.”

Honey Wyatt – HR Magazine