Mental Health at work - Can I take a 'sick day'?

Published: 14/07/2017

A CEO’s response to his employees’ mental health has gone viral on the internet this week… and for all the right reasons. A Michigan-based web developer sent her team an out-of-office email, saying she needed to take a few days off to deal with her mental health. The boss’s response has been shared thousands of times. Would your boss react the same? What are your rights at work when it comes to mental health? We explain…

#MentalHealthDays in the headlines

The email chain went as such:


Hey team,

I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.



Boss (In this case, CEO):

Hey Madalyn,

I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.

The internet, rightly so, erupted with positivity about this boss’s consideration for his employees.

What’s the law? Am I allowed to take off if I’m not feeling up to work?

There is no doubt that you are allowed to take time off work if you are unwell. This is granted to employees by law. In many cases, you will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and/or company sick pay (additional or more generous sick pay that your employer may choose to give you). To qualify, you should follow the policy your employer has given you about ‘calling in sick’ such as who to notify, when and how. If you have been off work sick for more than seven days, you will need to get an official Statement of Fitness to Work ('fit note') from a GP or the doctor that treated you. It’s possible that you will have a ‘back to work’ assessment once you return and potentially fill out a form for your HR department.

But I don’t have the flu! Does this include “mental health days”?

Mental health conditions, by law at present, fall under the category of a ‘disability’. So while you may not think of yourself as disabled, disability legislation applies to people with conditions such as depression, as well as cancer, MS and HIV, so the definition is broad.

Under this law, yes – you are allowed to take days off if you are impacted by a mental health issues. Some employers may regard this as a ‘sick day’. Others might have a separate ‘disability leave’ record, enabling you more time to recover. Either way, you will be entitled to statutory sick pay or maybe more generous pay outlined by your workplace’s scheme.

Do I need to disclose details of my mental health struggles to my employer?

Generally speaking, you don’t have to tell your boss why you are off. However, your work may have a policy wherein you need to divulge some details to HR. This is probably in your best interest anyway.

In this way, you can be given the support you need by your HR department, in a confidential and sensitive manner.

Can I be fired for taking ‘mental health days’?

No, this shouldn’t happen.

By law, your employer cannot discriminate against you because you are impaired by any condition that affects your day-to-day responsibilities.

Your employer should keep your job open for you, should not pressure you to resign, and try to make reasonable adjustments (e.g. flexible working hours or conditions e.g. so you can attend appointments) to help you.

I’ve been fired because of I’ve taken time off to deal with my mental health. What should I do?

If you feel you have been the victim of unfair dismissal as a consequence of taking days off for sickness, you can take your case to an employment tribunal. You normally have two years to do this. is the best source of information about the process you’ll need to follow.

The ‘mental health’ stigma – ways to combat it in the workplace

Despite technically, by law, being able to take ‘mental health days’ if you genuinely need them, many workplaces continue to be plagued by a stigma surrounding the issue.

Many employees claim they don’t feel HR takes their struggles seriously or that colleagues think they are ‘faking’ sick days or don’t deserve them.

Some suggestions for tackling the stigma include:

• Speaking up

If you feel mental health isn’t being treated as a serious issue in your workplace, the only way attitudes can start to change is by talking about it. Talking to your colleagues, supervisors and management can really help you, and others, in the long-run – even if it is very difficult at first.

• Get involved in good causes

If you workplace supports charitable causes, why not suggest a mental health charity be their next one?

At Goldsmith Williams for example, staff’s charitable efforts are shared via email, on the intranet and publicised externally, whereas individual staff members can also propose company-wide charity events (e.g. bake sales) to support causes they feel passionate about. This can be a great way to get people talking about, for example, the support needed for people with mental health issues.

• Create a healthy working environment

If you are an employer, there are a number of steps you can take to make the workplace a better place for everyone. Perhaps allow staff the occasional time off to take part in an activity or charitable cause together. Lighten the mood with casual Fridays. Encourage people to cycle to work and introduce lunchtime yoga sessions.

You can also join up to a number of national initiatives such as Time For Change – employers sign a ‘pledge’ online to actively address discrimination – or Taking Care of Business, a campaign that highlights the benefits of promoting good mental health.

Content correct at time of publication
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