Taking a 'mental health day': Your rights in the workplace

We’ve probably all taken a day off work to unwind— you may have even called it a “mental health day.” But whether the stress of your job is getting to be too much or you suffer from a diagnosable mental condition such as depression, you might be surprised at your rights and limitations when it comes to these short sabbaticals.

About one-fourth of Americans suffer from mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and an estimated 83 percent of Americans are under stress in the workplace, according to a 2013 survey. Where you lie within that spectrum can significantly impact your ability to step away from work without repercussions.

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Your workplace rights if you’re mentally ill

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees at businesses with 15 or more workers from discrimination because of a mental illness. Because it requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities, it leaves little room for managers to suggest that diagnoses like depression or bipolar disorder aren’t serious enough to warrant time off for treatment or recovery. Furthermore, additional federal laws and a slew of state laws protect workers from discrimination. Employers know about these laws, and most tread cautiously.

“Sometimes the employer doesn’t want to know the truth because actual knowledge can make any decision (concerning leave) more difficult and more likely to give rise to a possible claim of discrimination,” says Gary S. Young, an employment attorney in New York.

As with any illness, an absence of several days could trigger a request for a doctor’s note. But what needs to be included in such a note is a complicated legal matter that largely depends on state laws.

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“Most paid sick leave laws prohibit employers from requiring an employee to disclose the underlying diagnosis of their condition,” says Melissa Burdorf, attorney and legal editor at XpertHR. “In the District of Columbia, for instance, an employer may use a leave request form; however, the form may only include enough information to show the request for leave is covered by the law.”

In some cities, such as Seattle, employers are required to accept a signed personal statement from the employee, not a doctor, that the leave was used for a “qualifying purpose,” Burdorf says.

Although the laws are complex, a good rule of thumb is that your employer can’t treat your mental illness as any less serious than a physical illness that affects your ability to do the job in the same manner. Likewise, your employer can’t deny you the ability to take leave if other employees get such leave. This is true whether you’re asking for paid sick time or working somewhere that paid leave isn’t provided.

If you have concerns about your rights, you can contact the Department of Justice’s ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301.

What about stress?

If you just need some time off to unwind and de-stress, your rights aren’t so clear cut. Much of your ability to take time off as needed is completely at your employer’s discretion.

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Laws vary from state to state, but “what can be said with some certainty is that an employer may want to allow stress-induced sick days regardless of whether they are required to do so,” Burdorf says.

“Stress affects job performance and can act as a precursor to bigger issues,” Burdorf says. “Allowing an employee to take off for stress-related concerns might help them come back a much stronger worker.”

Stress is the top risk issue in the workplace, according to a 2013-2014 Towers Watson survey of employers. But only 15 percent of responding employers thought their health programs made a priority of reducing workplace stress and improving mental well-being among employees.

If you ask, you may find your employer is flexible when you are under serious stress, particularly if it’s affecting your health or your ability to do your job. But if you run into resistance, consider your alternatives: employing better stress management techniques, speaking with a mental health professional— and possibly receiving justification for time off— or scheduling a day off in advance rather than taking calling in sick same-day.

READ MORE: You could receive a free depression screening under the ACA

Final tips

Taking a “mental health day” could give you brief respite and the ability to go back in fully refreshed, but it could also make things harder. Knowing why you feel the way you do and how you can remedy the situation is key.

“It’s important not to use ‘mental health days’ just to avoid dealing with issues that need to be faced,” says David M. Reiss, a psychiatrist in San Diego, Calif.

Reiss suggests people set specific goals for their days off, even if it’s as simple as seeing a therapist or doing something relaxing. Activities that increase stress, isolation and interpersonal difficulties can be “worse than being at work,” he says.

Most workplaces make their attitudes about time off pretty clear, whether in policy or in practice. If yours doesn’t, ask. When the expectations are clear, you can better navigate your options— whether it’s calling in sick for a “mental health day,” taking vacation time or searching for a less stressful job.