Oregon Students Can Now Take Mental Health Days Off School — Why Can’t Workers?

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Oregon just passed a bill allowing students to take mental health days, the same way they would sick days. Teen activists lobbied for mental health conditions to be recognized as excusable absences from school, the Associated Press reported. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill last month, though it's not yet clear when it will go into effect. Just as this bill acknowledges the need for students to take mental health days, research suggests that dedicated mental health days in the workplace can reduce stigma and increase overall health and wellness.

Today's work environments are all about productivity, often to the detriment of everything else. Do more. Now. Faster. Again. This mentality not only exacerbates existing mental health conditions, it can lead to new ones like chronic burnout. In fact, it's become such a problem that in May 2019 the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as a medical condition. The WHO also noted that although one in four people will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, two thirds never seek treatment, in large part because of the stigma attached to mental illness.

By not taking steps to reduce the stigma, modern society is effectively fostering a culture of burned out workers who are neglecting their mental health. It should go without saying that this is not good for anyone. According to the World Economic Forum, taking care of employees' mental health actually saves companies money in the long run. For every dollar invested in mental health care, there is a $4 return for the economy. On the other hand, ignoring the need for mental health care will reportedly result in a loss of 12 billion working days until 2030, which translates to a $900 billion loss globally every year.

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Implementing paid mental health sick days is a step in the right direction, but it won't solve the larger problem — a comprehensive lack of workforce wellness protections in the U.S. Currently, only seven states have mandatory sick-time laws that allow part-time workers, or those who don't get benefits through their jobs, some form of paid sick leave. For those in the other 43 states, and for freelancers, taking a day off of work for any reason could mean losing your job altogether.

In addition, more than 5 million people in the U.S. with a diagnosable mental health condition do not have health insurance, according to data from Mental Health America. While it's true that there are ways to obtain free or low-cost mental health care, there are many barriers to accessing it. And if you can't get time off work to go to an appointment when one becomes available, prioritizing your mental health becomes almost impossible.

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It's not an overstatement to say that the need for mental health protections in the workplace has reached a crisis point. The "Strong Minds at Work" 2019 Mental Health Report from Unum, a company that helps people access workplace benefits, found that 42% of people have come to work while experiencing thoughts of suicide and 61% felt there was a social stigma against mental health in the workplace. In addition, 62% of all missed work days can be attributed to mental health conditions.

"Given the extent of U.S. workers dealing with mental health issues, and the fact that any employee is susceptible to periods of being mentally unwell, it is time that employers shift more attention toward mental health. This means not only providing support to those who are struggling with a mental health issue, but also normalizing the conversation in the workplace and developing or enhancing strategies to maintain the wellbeing of all employees," the report concluded.

What's more, if teen activists in Oregon can successfully lobby for mental health days in schools, it's certainly possible for grown-ass folks to band together and demand the same protections at work. Because the first step toward achieving mental health and wellness is acknowledging the need for it in the first place.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), or call 911.