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Mental Health Day Off: Can Employees Take It?

Do Your Employees Deserve a Mental Health Day Off

Whether you hire a full time, casual or part-time employee, being mindful of the working entitlements of your employees is important. 

However, more often than not employees, as well as employers, lack clarity around the number of leave entitlements especially mental health days off. Of course, this ambiguity leads us to some pressing questions such as: 

  • Is mental health leave in NSW a separate entitlement under the Fair Work Ombudsman? 
  • Is mental health day considered sick leave? 
  • As a business, do we offer stress leave to my casual employees?

In this post, we cover everything there is to know about mental health day off and the ways in which you can support your employees. 

Read along

Table of Contents

Is mental health day off work considered in Australia?

To answer the most common question you get asked by your employees, ‘Can I get a mental health day off?’, the short answer is yes. 

Your employees deserve a mental health day off. 

But where does the confusion kick in? Good question.

In Australia, mental health day off is considered; however, the law does not explicitly state that employees are entitled to a ‘mental health day off.’ 

Instead, under the Fair Work Act (Cth) (‘The Act’), a mental health day off will be considered part of your employees’ sick leave or personal leave and generally be considered leave for stress-related reasons. This means that stress leave and mental health leave are not official categories of leave in Australia. 

So if your employee asks you for a day off for their mental health, it will likely fall under the exisiting leave categories of sick and personal leave. Both are mandatory paid-time entitlements under the National Employment Standards (NES) for full-time employees and part-time employees.

What’s the difference between sick leave and personal leave?

Under the NES, your employers may take leave from work for personal reasons

Sick and carer’s leave, also known as personal leave or personal carer’s leave, means that you need to provide your employee with the opportunity to take time off to help them deal with a:

  • A personal illness – Illness includes mental illnesses such as stress, anxiety or feeling burned-out.
  • Caring responsibilities and family emergencies – Employees may take time off to take care of a sick or injured family member or help during an emergency. Caregiver’s leave comes out of the employee’s personal leave balance.

Who is entitled to sick leave and personal leave, you ask? If you have full-time and part-time employees working at your business annually, they are entitled to 10 working days of paid personal leave. This protects an employees’ income when required to miss a day of work due to illness or injury. 

Another important point that you should know as a business owner is that paid sick and carer’s leave begins to accumulate from the very first day that your employee starts to work. 

If there are instances that the 10 days of sick leave are not taken, the balance carries over into the following year. Sick and carer’s leave continues to accumulate when an employee is on;

  • Paid annual leave, or paid sick and carer’s leave.
  • Community service leave, e.g. jury duty.
  • Long service leave.

What is stress, and why could your employees need a mental health day off?

It’s quite important that you do as one in five Australians (21%) took time off work in the past 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy. It’s necessary to remember that your employee’s mental health is just as important as their physical health. 

So it would be a good idea to learn what stress is and what could cause it if you want to ensure your employees receive the help they need.

Your employees could feel stressed when they feel overwhelmed and unable to deal with certain life and workplace circumstances. An employee may experience work-related stress when they feel unable to cope with: 

  • Overwhelming workload – For example, staff members leaving your business which will require existing employees to pick up the workload
  • Tasks are not under control 
  • Emotionally challenging situations
  • Unpredictable changes in the working environment
  • It can be difficult to meet deadlines when work volume fluctuates
  • Poor support from the business
  • Isolated working conditions
  • negative workplace relationships, including bullying.

As an employer, you should take proactive measures to reduce workplace stress. There’s no doubt that discussing your employee’s personal life can be difficult, but remaining sensitive to mental health issues that may create stress is crucial.

You can greatly reduce work-related stress by listening to your employee and trying to assist with work pressure.

Do casual employees deserve a mental health day off (stress leave)?

Unfortunately, if you employ casual workers, they are not entitled to paid sick leave. In turn, this also means that casual employees aren’t entitled to a mental health day off work or stress leave.

Casual workers do not receive paid sick leave because casual employees work on an ad hoc basis with irregular and unpredictable hours. For example, if you hire a casual employee, you can change their roster weekly to suit your business’s needs, but this also means that they can also refuse to accept work or swap shifts.

Although casual employees do not have sick leave, they are no less susceptible to the need to take time off due to mental health problems. So as an employer, instead of providing your casual employee with paid sick leave, you can instead communicate with them when they require a day off. 

If you’re still unsure about the different leave entitlements for casual employees, here is a summary of what casual employees are entitled to:

  • 2 days unpaid carer’s leave
  • 2 days unpaid compassionate leave per occasion
  • 5 days unpaid family and domestic violence leave (in a 12-month period)
  • unpaid community service leave

To ensure that your business isn’t affected by your casual employee’s absence, it would be good to plan their availabilities in advance.

Can I ask my employees for evidence of their mental health?

The short answer is yes. You can ask your employees to provide evidence of why they needed to take a sick day by requesting a medical certificate, even if your employee only takes one day off. 

However, this does not mean that you can push your employee for more information about their mental health.

You may require a medical certificate for an employees absence for a legitimate reason. But one thing to note is that in Australia, doctor’s are not legally required to detail a reason for a medical certificate or detail the ins and outs of your employer’s mental health. 

If your employee still does not feel comfortable providing a medical certificate, they don’t have to legally. Instead, they can provide a statutory declaration instead. Where can your employees get this? It is usually signed by their local Justice of Peace (JP). 

So before you ask your employees for evidence, make sure you’re aware of the different options of asking them to provide evidence as not every employee will be comfortable disclosing their mental health.

Can my employee’s mental health day off last longer than one day?

Simply put, yes.

Your employee’s mental health day off can last longer than one day.

This just means that your employee will continue to take paid sick leave for the duration of their personal illness that affects their ability to work. 

However, it’s good to know that employees have a set amount of paid sick leave days annually as an employer. 

Your full-time employees accumulate 10 days of sick leave each year. For part-time employees, it is dependent on how often they work, but generally, this is also the same as full-time employees.

Once your employee’s accumulated sick leave runs out, they will still be able to take unpaid sick leave. However, there are ways to manage an employee if they are taking too many sick leave and can dismiss if they take over 3 months of unpaid leave or a combination of paid/unpaid leave in that time.

Do my employees need to disclose details of their mental health?

It is generally not necessary for your employees to disclose details about their mental health conditions and your personal day off. However, exceptions apply if their mental health condition poses a risk to themselves or others. 

For example, if your employee took a mental health day because they were extremely stressed or anxious, there’s no obligation for them to specify this information to you.  

On the other hand, in cases where your employees work with heavy machinery and make decisions that put others in danger, they must disclose this information to you to ensure your other employees’ safety.

How would your employee go about asking you for a mental health day?

Unless it may cause harm to yourself or others, your employee doesn’t need to describe their mental health status in detail. If your employee asks you for a mental health day off, it is the same as if they asked you for a sick day.  

In the event that an employee requests a mental health day off, it should not add additional stress to their already stressful situation.

It would be good to foster an environment where all employees feel comfortable asking for a day off by creating a safe environment. It could even be a good idea to encourage them to openly discuss mental health days so that it will not seem taboo in your workplace.

Do I Need To Think About Privacy and Mental Health At Work?

As a business owner, you have a duty of care for the safety of your employees, according to Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws. This includes employees’ psychological safety and mental health concerns. 

It is important to create an accepting workplace and promote open dialogue regarding mental health in the workplace. Do you know that stress-free employees with greater mental well-being are more engaged in their work, less likely to take sick days, and have better performance? 

Not only will this be beneficial for all your employees’ mental health needs, but also for your business’s overall goals.  

You can avoid psychological injury compensation claims against your business if you detect and manage stress early. This is just another bonus.

So to ensure your employees are stress-free and are feeling happy, check in on your employees regularly to see how they are handling their workload and working environment.

You could even consider having sessions for employees who want to have open discussions about mental health and introduce other initiatives in your business such as:

  • Providing relaxation and mindfulness support. This can include things such as meditation and yoga sessions;
  • Providing your employees with a practical guide to self-care if they’re working from home;  
  • Ensure your employees know who to reach out to within the business if they are experiencing any stress. This will usually be the human resources team, but it’s better to make it very clear;
  • It will be a good idea for your employees to also know of mental health organisations or reach out to health care professionals. These include Beyondblue, Sane, Lifeline and Black Dog Institute
  • Task Related – writing your employees tasks and stressors down for clarity;
  • modifying  your employees working environment; or 
  • managing the number of tasks your employee must complete.

Last but not least, ensure your organisation’s WHS policies are continually updated and maintained to prevent employees from creating situations that might result in stress-related illnesses or mental health issues. For example, you could implement a policy against bullying at your workplace to manage coworker relationships better.

COVID-19 and Stress

COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted society in many ways. A sense of isolation is being created by quarantine and working from home

As existing jobs change, working conditions are becoming more challenging, and loss of income is causing many people to feel financially stressed.

There is a possibility that the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic may cause additional personal stress for your employees, which may result in an increase in requests for stress leaves and a reduced work-life balance during this time.

If your employee and business have and may be affected by the pandemic, the Australian Government (Gov) is offering Medicare-subsidised psychological therapy services. To encourage your employees’ mental health and well-being, you should draw their attention to these and other services.

You may also want to consider including support programs or psychological services in your business so that your employees can receive even more assistance or implement a work from home policy in your business. 

Conclusion

Entitling your employees to take a mental health day off work is crucial for your employees’ well-being, after all, their mental state reflects in their performance. 

And if you need assistance with implementing or updating your business’s WHS policies to ensure it supports your business check out this stress leave policies template to help you understand all your obligations.

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