When Madalyn Parker put an out-of-office autoreply on her email letting people know that she was “taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health”, the CEO of her Michigan-based employer offered unconditional support: “You are an example to us all so we can all bring our whole selves to work,” he said.
The result of their email exchange on social media was an outpouring of praise for her boss. “What a fantastic CEO you have,” tweeted one follower. “I hope one day to work for a business with this attitude.”
As a big supporter of initiatives to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues in the workplace – Grant Thornton being a prominent and excellent example – I was initially equally positive about this story.
What if a Victorian coal mine had offered wheezing miners a couple of days of “Emphysema Leave” when they were really struggling?
But then I reflected on it for a moment. Without getting into the individuals involved and what is undoubtedly a well-intentioned response from the CEO, is there a darker side to this?
This was not, it seems, a planned holiday for someone who needed a break. We all know that feeling, right? This was an unplanned couple of days out of the office for someone who felt they needed to focus on their mental health. This suggests someone at risk of burnout.
If an employer’s strategy to someone at the brink of burnout is to take a couple of “mental health days” out, then this is some way from fantastic. What if a Victorian coal mine had offered wheezing miners a couple of days of “Emphysema Leave” when they were really struggling?
I can’t help thinking that this is a sticking plaster approach to burn-out that risks distracting us from a broader issue: near-burnout is not only accepted, it is often perceived as a symptom of commitment, the “Always be hustlin’” mentality that, it turns out, was one of the 14 company core values at Uber.
We still have a Frederick Taylor industrial approach to performance at work that’s at least a century out of date. We’re no longer carrying lumps of pig-iron around – we are knowledge workers and to flourish in our roles we need to build high levels of cognitive performance. To work sustainably at high levels we need the skills to avoid burnout.
Mental toughness has been around sport as a concept for decades. Elite athletes are given help building the skills that will help them achieve success such as grit, resilience and positive self-talk. Far-sighted employers are realising that in today’s market, employees won’t stick around to the point where they need “mental health days” – they will simply quit. Millennials are less likely to have bought a property or started a family than was the case only twenty years ago. It’s great to chip away at the stigma surrounding mental health but if we celebrate workplaces that push people to the brink of burnout, we risk compounding the problem.