In June, Madalyn Parker, a web developer living with chronic depression and anxiety, sent an email to her colleagues explaining that she would be taking two sick days to focus on her mental health. The CEO of her company promptly replied, praising her decision to fight the stigma too often associated with mental illness by being open with her team and promoting the importance of sick time for mental health. Madalyn shared her boss’s reply on Twitter and the tweet went viral – it has been shared by more than 16,000 people and liked 45,000 times.
Madalyn’s story is especially relevant today, which is World Mental Health Day. This year’s theme is mental health in the workplace. Considering that nearly one in five adults in the United States experiences a mental health problem each year, it is past time for all employers to start thinking about how they can promote mental health in the workplace. Madalyn’s experience reinforces the critical role paid sick time can play in improving people’s health and well being. But it’s also a reminder of the need for more widespread policy and culture change.
More than 37 million people who work in the private sector in the United States are unable to earn a single day of job-protected paid sick time through their employers. These workers are less likely to go to the doctor or access preventive care – an important part of treating health conditions, including mental illnesses. People without paid sick days are also about twice as likely to use emergency room care rather than typical medical care, leading to avoidable health care costs.
Improving workers’ access to paid sick days isn’t just good for people’s health and economic security; it helps businesses too, by increasing productivity and employee retention rates. In her email to co-workers, Madalyn noted that she was taking time to get “back to 100%” and her boss said everyone should bring their “whole selves to work.” They both highlight the long-term cost savings to employers when employees are fully present and performing at their best and most productive.
Some states and cities already recognize the widespread benefits of paid sick time – 40 jurisdictions nationwide have adopted laws that guarantee workers’ access to paid sick days – but the ability to care for yourself or a loved one should not be determined by geography or the understanding and kindness of your boss.
Establishing a national paid sick days standard is the solution. And the Healthy Families Act, which is currently under consideration in Congress, would establish such a standard. Its enactment would mean working people would no longer have to choose between their health and keeping a paycheck or job. It would also allow survivors of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault to use their paid sick time to recover – including to address psychological issues that result from abuse.
This World Mental Health Day, follow the lead of Madalyn, her boss and the many others who are challenging the stigma around mental illness and raising awareness about policies that promote people’s mental and physical health. A national paid sick days standard would help create more economically secure families, healthier and more productive workplaces and stronger businesses. Tell Congress that passing the Healthy Families Act should be a priority.