Nearly two years into the pandemic, employees still struggle to take time off when they experience excess stress — but one expert explains why it's important to take mental health days, which are protected by law.
Attorney Marc Siegel says employees often feel torn of taking time off because of their mental health concerns, but COVID-19 has only heightened work stress and burnout.
“People are worried about their jobs. People are worried about their health. People are worried about their family members,” Attorney Marc Siegel said.
Siegel said it's important to reach out for help early and to know your rights.
"A lot of times employees wait too late. They're afraid of bringing this up. And then what happens is their performance suffers and then they're on their last legs at the employer," he said.
Nationally, around 75% of government and private sector employees have paid sick leave, but studies show many are reluctant to use that time off for mental health reasons.
“Employees fear that if they say something, that will be used against them and that it will lead to their termination. But the law is clear that they are protected,” Siegel said.
Referencing the Family Medical Leave Act, Siegel explains employees are allowed to go out on leave for up to 12 weeks if it is a serious medical health condition.
“Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar, those would all be serious medical conditions,” Siegel said.
In D.C., employees are allowed up to 16 weeks off for medical conditions and then 16 weeks off for a family member's condition. Time off doesn’t have to be taken all at once and can be implemented through changes to schedules, such as shifting hours or working from home a few days a week.
Employers are recognizing the importance on mental health breaks as people leave their jobs in record numbers. Jobs in health care, retail and food services have experienced nearly 20 million resignations this spring and summer alone.
“I think we're at a transformative point in how mental health conditions are dealt with in the workplace,” Siegel said. “Employers are seeing that, hey, if we want to keep our workforce, we've got to deal with these issues, and we can't just throw people away because they're going through a hard time.”
Siegal said it's important for both employers and employees to recognize that mental health days are just as important as sick days. He says employees should start conversations with their bosses or human resources departments to discuss options.