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Calls for a new public holiday to de-stigmatise mental health sick leave

NSW-based mental health consumer advisory group Being is arguing that mental health sick days need to be properly recognised. (Source: Getty)
NSW-based mental health consumer advisory group Being is arguing that mental health sick days need to be properly recognised. (Source: Getty)

NSW-based mental health consumer advisory group Being is calling for Australia to have a new public holiday in order to recognise sick days for mental health.

This comes at a time when burnout has been officially named by the World Health Organisation as an occupational syndrome and a month after R U OK? Day.

According to Being CEO Irene Gallagher, a designated public holiday would be what’s needed to start conversations about when it’s appropriate for workers to take sick leave.

“If someone gets food poisoning or the flu, or has any physical health issues, employers encourage that person to be off work,” Gallagher said.

“But if someone suffers depression, anxiety or becomes so mentally exhausted that they can’t get out of bed, a lack of support for mental health sick days means they need to hide their mental health so they can take time to hit the reset button.

“Invariably they slink back to work full of unwarranted guilt.”

Being would like to see World Mental Health Day, which is on October 10, made a public holiday in Australia from 2020.

The mental health advisory group is also calling for workplaces to make policies that allow for workers to take mental health days off work any time of the year.

“If we are serious about encouraging people to talk about how they feel, then let’s apply that to the place where we spend most of our waking hours – the workplace,” said Gallagher.

“The time has come to confront workplace cultures where people need to hide their lived experiences of mental health issues because they fear being stigmatised or even sacked.”

Gallagher said that the perception that taking a mental health day was in fact laziness in disguise was a “dangerous belief” that having mental health episodes makes us a burden to one another.

“Hidden episodes can become acute and/or chronic, sometimes leading to suicidal ideation and attempted or actual suicide.

“It’s time to turn the tables on that dangerous cliché; employees taking sick days to sustain good mental health is just as valid a reason as physical health,” she said.

According to the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 45 per ent of Australians will have a common mental disorder in their lifetime.

“They are nearly half the population, so they are everyone’s loved ones,” said Gallagher.

‘Presenteeism’ – where workers come into work despite feeling unwell, whether physically or mentally – has real costs for businesses and therefore to productivity and the economy.

According to a 2016 report commissioned by Pathology Awareness Australia, presenteeism costs the Australian economy more than $34 billion every year.

The stress of work itself, culminating in burnout, can also contribute to poorer mental health, and is estimated to affect about 7 per cent of the workforce.

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