Break the stigma: Time to make mental health part of sick leaves


Polls are popular on social media these days. One such asked users about the excuses that they gave at workplaces to seek time off for mental health. The answers range from headaches, stomach upset, viral fever to even funerals of grandparents (who are dead).

One thing is clear. Employees are hesitant about admitting that they needed leave for emotional health. And what option do they really have?

Sick leave is restricted to about 10-12 days a year at most companies, unless there is hospitalisation for a medical emergency. Amidst this, the concept of mental health leave is non-existent.

While it does seem like mental health awareness is rising at Indian workplaces, this isn’t true everywhere. Ask for a three-day mental health leave from your employer and the cold stares will follow.

“My company has mental health awareness sessions often. But the reality is that the HR team itself is not aware of these issues. If you seek time off, they ask questions and even proof,” said Megha Gonsalves, a technology professional from Mumbai.

The ‘proof’ that companies insist on refers to the doctors’ certificate for sick leave. But what about mental health? How will an employee be able to produce such documents, unless he/she is hospitalised for further treatment?

Here, having a clear policy for mental health would help. For instance, why can’t mental health leaves be made part of the regular sick leave? This would enable employees to take time off for anxiety/depression and allied issues without feeling guilty.

Companies could offer say upto five to seven days in a year as mental health leave. The key here is to trust the employee and not ask for proof. No such proof exists except the medical bills for anti-depressants which is not prescribed to everyone.

Corporate HR managers would say why have this leave in the first place when individual employees can approach their team managers for specific time off? The answer here is stigma.

At an average Indian workplace, mental health issues would lead to employees being termed ‘unstable’ and ‘unreliable’.

Shaeeda Nigam, a 29-year-old human resource professional from Kolkata recounts how she was removed from a key project overnight when she sought leave to see a therapist.

“I have been dealing with severe anxiety and panic attacks since 2019. I just needed two days leave to see a psychologist and get some medical tests done. But this backfired and I was removed from a core project I was working on,” says Nigam.

She has now switched jobs but is still not fully comfortable seeking leaves for mental health. Nigam explains that while her team knows about her anxiety issues, there is still an inherent fear that her employer may consider her incapable.

“Often, I make up excuses of having a fever. Because unfortunately fever is acceptable but anxiety is not,” admits Nigam.

While workplace stress is among the many reasons for deteriorating mental health, having a conducive HR policy to allow mental health leave is a must-have.

But, preconceived notions about employees ‘faking it’ continue at the workplaces. Also, what needs to be drilled down is that mental health is just like any other medical condition that is treatable with therapy and medication.

Priyanuj Tyagi who heads talent management at an insurance broking firm in Hyderabad says that offering mental health leave is a tricky situation because they wouldn’t want employees to misuse the leave.

When asked whether the organisation will take responsibility for a mental breakdown of a staff member in office, he has no answers.

Corporates also need to realise that there is a clear impact of mental health on productivity. So if an employee turns up at work with a bad mental state, this could affect their daily tasks and eventually also lead to financial losses.

The World Health Organization estimated that India will suffer economic losses amounting to a staggering 1.03 trillion dollars from mental health conditions between 2012 and 2030.

Though India-specific information is not available, data from the American Psychiatric Association showed that employees with unresolved depression experience a 35 percent reduction in productivity. This would contribute a whopping $ 210.5 billion loss a year in absenteeism, reduced productivity, and medical costs to the US economy.

The Indian economy and its corporations cannot certainly cannot afford these losses. The decision to offer mental health sick leave needs to be made soon; better late than never.