When Olark Live Chat employee Madalyn Parker sent an email saying she was taking a couple days to focus on her mental health, the CEO of her company responded with a supportive and encouraging email—and sparked a nationwide conversation about mental health in the workplace.
A viral email
In an email to her team, Parker said she was using two days of sick leave to care for her mental health so she could return the following week "refreshed and back to 100 percent."
Olark CEO Ben Congleton responded with a thank you email, saying that every time Parker "sen[t] emails like this," it serves "as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health." Adding that he "can't believe this is not standard practice at all organizations," he wrote, "You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work."
After asking for permission to do so, Parker shared the email exchange on Twitter on June 30—and the response went viral, garnering over 13,000 retweets and over 40,000 likes in just a few days.
A stigmatized disease
According to USA Today, Parker's tweet helped spark a discussion on the stigmatization of mental health within the work environment. In response to her tweet, people shared experiences during which they felt they had to lie about a mental health day, or where they did share their health concerns and found their superiors less than understanding.
But mental health issues are relatively common in the United States, the Sacramento Bee reports. According to CDC, about one in 20 people over the age of 12 report having suffered from depression, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that about 18 percent of the United States population is affected by anxiety disorders.
In fact, more than 25 percent of people have reported feeling "burned out" or "extremely stressed" by the work they do, McClatchy reports. And workplace stress is exacerbated by multiple factors, according to CDC, including heavy workloads, lack of family-friendly and/or work-life balance policies, and job insecurity.
But people aren't taking time off to mitigate or treat their mental health, USA Today reports. According to Project Time Off, more than half of U.S. workers don't use all their vacation time, resulting in 662 million unused vacation days each year, and Americans still aren't guaranteed paid sick leave under federal law.
Shortly after the email exchange went viral, Congleton published an opinion piece on Medium, saying the outpouring of support surprised him because "this should be business as usual. We have a lot of work to do."
Congleton added, "It's 2017. I cannot believe that it is still controversial to speak about mental health in the workplace when 1 in 6 Americans are medicated for mental health. ... I cannot believe that it is still controversial to offer paid sick leave."
He pointed out that as a "knowledge economy," our work "require[s] us to execute at peak mental performance." He wrote, "When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let's get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different" (May, USA Today, 7/11; Chambers, AJC, 7/11; Irby, McClatchy/Sacramento Bee, 7/11; Congleton, Medium, 7/6).
Advisory Board's take
By Micha'le Simmons, HR Advancement Center
Having a paid time off (PTO) policy isn't enough to ensure workers feel comfortable taking time off—organizations need to empower staff to use their PTO and develop a culture that respects work-life balance.
Organizations may feel that if they put the time on the table, that's enough to encourage their leaders and staff to use it. But that's far from the truth. If organizations are not actively encouraging staff to use their PTO and helping them plan when they can get away, they may not take it.
And PTO is just one thing to think about when it comes to protecting work-life balance—here are three other ways organizations can help managers avoid burnout:
- Re-scope the manager role. If leaders' workloads are unsustainable, then the occasional time away won't be enough to keep someone from burning out. There are some larger, structural issues senior leaders will have to address—especially for nurse managers, who often have unwieldy spans of control.
- Give managers protected time to work. Aside from re-evaluating the scope of leaders' roles, organizations also can make some easy tweaks to help leaders with their work-life balance. Organizations should consider protecting leaders' time during the week by implementing dedicated meeting-free times or establishing after-hours 'email blackout' policies.
- Don't glorify working around the clock. To be productive and relieve stress, leaders need time to reset on an ongoing basis. Just as with PTO, senior leaders have to model this in order to frontline leaders to feel they have permission to take that time back for themselves.