Mental health days gain favor at work


April 27, 1992|By Kathleen Murray | Kathleen Murray,Orange County Register

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Robert Long and Richard Tusco don't fancy themselves goof-offs.

Still, the two Farmers Insurance claims representatives acknowledge that they and their co-workers play hooky from time to time.

Sometimes they leave work to go home. Other times they hit the beach, shoot 18 holes of golf or take a class.

"Some people even used to go to the movies," said Long, 29, who works in Orange, Calif. "The supervisors sort of look the other way. They know it happens because the job is demanding. They did it when they were coming up through the ranks."

To the uninitiated, it might smack of goldbricking. But for many employees -- and some bosses -- taking a mental health day now and then can mean survival in the increasingly competitive and stressful working world.

Of course, a lot of employers aren't thrilled with the concept, and few will admit it exists. Yet more and more employers are starting to look the other way or quietly encourage it when employees take a mental health day, psychologists and workplace consultants say.

"I've seen people take a day off to mentally recoup and I think it's an excellent way to use a sick day," said Dr. Richard G. Rappaport, a psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of San Diego who often advises companies on employment issues.

"If it's taken as a preventive measure because an employee is stressed out, it will probably save them sick days in the future. I can see that a company wouldn't be thrilled, but in the long run it might be more cost-effective," Dr. Rappaport said.

In recent years, a number of employers have restructured their time-off policies in ways that make taking a mental health day easier.

Some are developing paid time-off programs that allow workers a certain number of days for vacation and personal holidays. Instead of getting 10 vacation days and five sick days, workers might get 15 days a year to use at their discretion.

"Employees can use the time as they see fit, and they aren't put in the position of having to lie to get the day off," said John Hermann, a consultant with Total Employee Relations in Irvine, Calif. "The only problem comes if they use up their days and then get sick."

Others are turning to flexible scheduling plans that allow workers more leeway in choosing the hours they work. Fluor Corp., for example, has created nine-hour workdays. Employees now get every other Friday off, and Fluor said absenteeism is down.

The recession is one reason such policies have yet to take full flight. With so many companies downsizing, the productivity of the remaining workers is that much more important.

At the same time, employees are working harder and assuming more duties. Many workers are afraid to miss a day no matter how stressed out they might feel. Absenteeism rates were down slightly in 1991, the first change in five years, according to the Bureau of National Affairs.

"It's kind of scary, with so many people out of jobs right now," said Wendy Apelian, a sales representative with Volt Temporary Services in Santa Ana. "I think most people feel you better watch out when you take time off."

Some experts think it's more than that.

Juliet B. Scher, a Harvard University economics professor, said the average American works too much because he has forgotten how to spend leisure time.

In her recently published book "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure," (Basic Books, New York), Ms. Scher notes that the amount of time spent working has gone up over the past two decades -- not out of choice but because we can't afford to do otherwise.

Americans are caught in a cycle of working to support a level of consumption that is out of bounds, she said. Even when U.S. workers take days off, she said, their favorite way to pass the time is spending money on entertainment or new possessions.

Judy Jacobsen, an investment officer for Orange County, Calif., knows what Ms. Scher is talking about. She can't remember ever calling in sick to take a personal day. "But when I take time off, I like to spend it shopping," she added.

Employers in high-stress occupations such as health care tend to be most flexible when it comes to allowing employees mental health days.

At Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, it's no big deal when nurses say they want to take a day off.

"We're very open to employees who say they need time," said Amy Baker, a hospital spokeswoman. "We just juggle the scheduling. Our objective is not to make people work for extended periods with no rest."

Financial firms are also more progressive, though many do it informally, experts said. The culture at Farmers, for example, is a practice developed over time and owing to the nature of the business.

A claims adjuster is in the middle of attorneys, agents, victims and other parties who all think they're right. This can be stressful on the representative, who must make a decision that rarely pleases everyone.

Mr. Long and Mr. Tusco, who were in the military, are quick to note that even if they take off early, they make sure they know their assignments for the next day.

"As long as you get the work done, they (managers) don't care," Mr. Tusco said.

Some experts think they should. Najm Meshkati, a professor at the University of Southern California, studies occupational stress and organizational design. He said personal time off can temporarily alleviate stress. But the better solution is for the employer to reorganize the job or alter the environment to make the job more pleasant or challenging, he said.

"Mental health days are good," he said. "But they're like tranquilizers. They take away the pain, but they don't cure the disease."

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