Kudos to web developer Madalyn Parker and her compassionate boss for helping us understand what “taking a mental health day” really is all about. Through an honest exchange, they took a strong swing at the stigma that too often still envelops illnesses of the brain.
“I need a mental health day” is a phrase that’s been hijacked by weary and exasperated folks everywhere in response to too much work and not enough time to take care of basics like diet, sleep and exercise. While no doubt that combination can lead to serious stress, its conflation with mental health only further undercuts a serious and still misunderstood issue.
So good on Parker, a 26-year-old software developer at Olark Live Chat based in Michigan, for her reminder.
Parker, who has written previously about her struggles with anxiety and depression, recently emailed her team to say she needed to take two days off to cope with these issues and to “focus on my mental health.”
She later told CNN, “I had experienced several nights of insomnia and was poorly rested and also having lots of suicidal thoughts, which make it difficult to accomplish much at work.”
Her boss, CEO Ben Congleton, responded to this time off request by noting that Parker’s honesty and courage serve as a powerful lesson to her co-workers about mental health issues. “You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
After Parker shared the exchange on social media, Congleton followed up with a post on Medium, elaborating on his thoughts. “When an athlete is injured, they sit on the bench and recover,” wrote Congleton. “Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”
If you think this is no big deal, you likely have never struggled with a mental-health disorder, nor walked this path with a family or friend.
We can’t say it too often: We all can and must be mindful of erasing the stigma around mental illness.
In today’s productivity-driven world, it’s tough enough to tell your boss you can’t work due to a very visible physical illness. If it’s a mental issue, unless you are in full-blown crisis, the malady presents with far more subtle symptoms. Worse, being honest could jeopardize your job — or future employment.
So instead, we hunker down and try to press forward, believing that’s our only choice. This despite the fact that nearly one in five people — 42 million Americans — suffers from a mental illness, such as depression or bipolar disorder.
The American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, notes that the lost productivity for people trying to soldier through in the office is actually more costly than the treatment side because people are at work but not functioning to full capacity.
Let me raise my hand right here as someone who often functioned at less than full capacity earlier in my newspaper career.
As a journalist who medicated depression with alcohol rather than get genuine help, I could be a mess. Near the end of that dark period, I thought a hangover was a far more understandable excuse for not being at my best than telling my boss about my own suicidal thoughts.
The stigma around mental illness was a big part of what kept me from getting help. It was only when alcohol quit working that I got to the root of the problem.
And the truth is that, even now, when I hit a rough patch, I don’t want to tell my boss.
It’s often just easier to gut it out. But attitudes like this are a big reason that the mental health stigma lives on. In this case, it’s me — not my boss — perpetuating it.
Madalyn Parker is showing a lot more courage.
For the sake of all the employees out there who don’t feel as safe as she did to tell the truth — who worry that the need for a “mental health day” will come across as a whiny plea for a break — I hope this simple exchange between her and her boss sparks a much bigger discussion.
Sharon Grigsby is a columnist and member of the editorial board at the Dallas Morning News.