Despite the progress made in destigmatizing mental health issues and pursuing positive emotional wellness goals, there is still work to be done. This year, Aetna International surveyed over a thousand workers across the US, UK, Singapore, and the UAE about their attitudes when it comes to both their physical and mental health. Results showed workers were less likely to be open about a mental health concern or use benefits like sick days to deal with those issues than they were for physical illness.

Over a third (35.8%) of employees surveyed admit to lying about their reasons for taking a sick day. While some of this is due to “conspiratorial” reasons (interviewing for a job at a different company) or because the employee has run out of vacation time, responses suggest that in some instances, this is done to conceal a mental health problem. Some employees cited concerns that their boss “wouldn’t understand” (22.6%) why they were really taking a sick day; for those struggling with an undiagnosed condition, over a third (35.3%) reported feeling this way. Only 11.3% of people confident they have no mental health concerns said the same.

Additionally, those without any diagnosed mental health issue are roughly twice as likely than those with a diagnosis to lie about taking a sick day due to stress or “feeling down.” It is possible this group with undiagnosed conditions might be feeling more stigmatized (it may also be why they have avoided a diagnosis) and are unwilling to admit to others why they need a sick day.

These numbers are especially concerning when considering the number of workers that deal with mental health problems. About half of employees surveyed reported that they have either been diagnosed or may have dealt with an undiagnosed condition at some point in their life; this includes the 39.9% of American employees with a diagnosed condition. As about 30% of those surveyed did not take any sick days in 2019, this could mean that if employees don’t lie about taking a day off to deal with poor mental health, they simply won’t take one at all. Only 4% reported not taking any sick days due to physical health issues, while a much larger amount (31%) say the same for mental health. It is also interesting to note that those that did not want to disclose whether or not they had a mental health condition were much more likely to report not taking any sick days.

Be Aware Of “Invisibility”

It’s important to consider how mental health issues aren’t always as visible as physical ailments, making them easier to ignore or conceal from others. Aetna found that when it comes to physical health issues, people are twice as likely (66%) to take a day off than for their mental health (34%). Over half (53.4%) of respondents said they are likely to take a sick day for specific physical symptoms like a cough, cold, flu, or vomiting, yet only 30.9% said the same for anxiety, stress, and depression.

Employers should keep in mind that, even if they feel their wellness program provides resources and content for mental and emotional health needs, it can be much harder to get workers to acknowledge these problems or gauge whether enough is being done to support them.

Eliminate The Stigma With A Positive Work Environment

If employees don’t feel comfortable talking about why they really need to use a sick day for a mental health concern, that means there is likely still a negative stigma surrounding these issues. It may not be enough to merely offer benefits that support emotional and mental health. While resources for diagnoses, support, and treatment are valuable, businesses also need to create an environment that encourages workers take advantage of them.

Employers may want to specifically offer designated “mental health days” in addition to a traditional allotment of sick days that are more commonly used for physical illness. this will help employees recognize that time off is expected for optimal mental and emotional health. Honoring personal time after hours and encouraging breaks throughout the day also shows employees that they do not need to sacrifice their mental health and constantly be “on” for their job. Businesses can incorporate mental and emotional health goals and content into their wellness programs. This can be especially effective if implemented within a team setting, potentially opening up supportive connections between coworkers. By normalizing conversations around mental health and actively engaging with workers about mental and emotional health topics, employees can feel more comfortable being honest and taking care of their overall well-being.

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