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The one perk leaders need to be giving their burned out teams

The founder and CEO of Modern Health observes that if we assume employees will simply take vacation when they need to manage their mental health needs, we’re setting the wrong tone for future generations of leaders.

The one perk leaders need to be giving their burned out teams
[Source images: creativesunday2016/iStock; zenink;iStock; Thomas Lefebvre/Unsplash]

Several years ago, a small group of technology companies and startups introduced a phenomenon soon to spread like wildfire: unlimited PTO. It started as a trickle, but soon became a popular way for companies to attract and retain talent and reward employees with well-earned time off. In fact, a 2019 Metlife employee benefits trends survey found that unlimited paid time off was the top emerging benefit that interested the employees surveyed. 

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Now, in the wake of a difficult year that put strain on many, companies are recognizing the importance of another phenomenon: investing in employee mental health. In fact, we recently commissioned a wide-ranging study of more than 1,700 business leaders, HR leaders, managers, and employees with Forrester Consulting. We found that 64% of manager and non-manager employees rank a flexible and supportive culture over a higher salary and are prepared to change jobs to find it. For some, a supportive and flexible culture means providing therapy and coaching to staff or investing in memberships for meditation apps. Many companies are also beginning to offer time off to help employees decompress and prevent burnout. 

Employers need to prioritize mental health because it’s good for business, and one easy way to do this is through mental health days. But don’t fall victim to the most common and detrimental mistake: pairing time off for mental health with PTO. This can send the wrong message. Unlimited or generous PTO is still incredibly popular and certainly worth including in your company’s benefits package, but it is no substitute for dedicated mental health time.

We should be encouraging employees to not only take PTO to unwind with family or go on vacation but we should also be acknowledging that employees also may need time specifically to avoid burnout or to focus on their mental health.  As leaders, I believe it is critical that we carve out extra days for mental health maintenance, setting the tone for more balanced work culture and ultimately creating a new workplace standard that prioritizes health and wellbeing. Here’s why. 

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What is PTO really for?

Paid time off is arguably the foundational benefit in the benefits stack today, a reward for hard work and an encouragement for employees to foster work-life balance. While not federally mandated, many corporate employers recognize that not offering PTO can be a major deterrent to hiring and retention efforts. Whether it’s used for vacation, time with family, or simply recharging, PTO has quite rightly become a relative standard for knowledge-based work in the U.S. 

However, if mental health days are folded into PTO,  the real meaning of PTO is lost. That time, which is meant for employees to use however they see fit, is suddenly relegated to caring for a critical component of their health. Similar to primary care, mental health is a core piece of our overall well-being, one that takes proactive engagement all year round. We’d never encourage employees to use their PTO to see a doctor – so why should mental health be any different? Plus, while PTO is often heavily planned for and communicated in advance, you can’t plan for a mental health setback. Mental health days can and should be taken when the need arises, whether an employee is feeling overwhelmed or experiencing acute wellbeing issues. 

Breaking the stigma at work

Truthfully mental health days have always been around, just under the guise of being “out sick” or having a “family emergency.” In fact, according to Deloitte, 95% of employees who have taken time off due to stress named another reason, such as an upset stomach or headache. The difference is now some companies are encouraging employees to openly express themselves and their needs. Perhaps the largest benefit of the mental health day trend is the conversation it has sparked around mental health at work. For instance, just recently, Japan announced a proposed 4-day work week as part of its annual economic policy guidelines, a countermeasure to the plummeting birth rates and mental health crisis attributed to poor work-life balance.

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While no one bats an eye when an employee shares that they’re taking PTO, the unfortunate reality of the modern workplace is that mental health stigma persists—and it’s getting in the way of progress. It’s still far less common to receive a vulnerable email from a colleague saying they’re taking a mental health day. A survey from The Hartford of worldwide employees showed that 72% say the stigma associated with mental illness prevents many U.S. workers from seeking help. Additionally, our research found most managers (63%) and more than half (60%) of employees felt the major events of the last 12-15 months affected them but also felt they had to leave it out of their work life. So, while we’re moving in the right direction, we’re not there yet. 

That said, if we as a collective workforce don’t get more comfortable talking about mental health in the workplace, we’re unlikely to see real progress toward alleviating burnout and stress in this country. While COVID-19 led to an increased emphasis on mental health worldwide, our research suggests some companies still haven’t caught up. Half of the leaders surveyed said employee benefits for mental health were not available in the past and therefore should not be a priority today. And a staggering 80% of C-suite leaders and nearly three-quarters (73%) of HR leaders say employees today expect too much mental health support from their employers. Lumping mental health days with PTO brushes them under the rug and keeps mental health “hush-hush” as it has long been in corporate America. While it’s important to not pressure employees to speak out if they don’t want to, separating the two categories will help us achieve the changes we’ve worked so hard to make after COVID. 

Setting the tone

After the year we’ve had, it’s no wonder our culture is facing a mental health epidemic.  Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, about four in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from one in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019. 

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As business leaders, we have an imperative to support our employees and help them thrive both at work and outside of it – not only because it’s the right thing to do or because it impacts productivity, but because we have the opportunity and influence to catalyze lasting cultural change. The way we structure and lead our organizations has a tangible impact on individuals and our concept of work. If we assume employees will simply take vacation when they need to manage their mental health needs we’re setting the wrong tone for future generations of leaders. Let’s carve out both options for employees so that they can use both PTO and mental health days accordingly. 

The first step is encouraging employees to invest in their mental health by mandating separate mental health benefits. But we know that mental health days alone are just a band-aid over a larger, systemic issue. Large-scale change to our workplace culture may start with mental health days in addition to PTO, but it’s up to us to ultimately build the kinds of businesses that employees don’t burn out from. These seemingly small workplace policy changes can and will create profound change if we take the initiative. 


Alyson Watson is the CEO and founder of Modern Health

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