Family Issues Top Reason for Taking ‘Mental Health’ Days

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 1, 2008

Family and relationship issues top the list for why employees would take a so-called mental health day, according to an online poll of 1,036 U.S. workers.

People take a mental health day when “you have no physical ailment but you know you can’t focus on the job” and need an unplanned absence to re-energize, says David Campbell, senior vice president of quality and customers at Chicago-based ComPsych Corp.

ComPsych, a provider of employee assistance programs, conducted the survey with employees from its employer-clients in February and March 2008.

Unlike vacations, which require planning—and which more U.S. workers leave unused—taking a mental health day, he said, “is responding to a crisis.”

“We’re running at 120 mph with work and family, and … you need to re-energize and re-focus. If you don’t, you’re going to get burnt out,” he said.

“They’re doing something of pleasure,” he told SHRM Online. “It may be going to a movie. It may be going for a massage. It may be doing absolutely nothing and sleeping until 9 o’clock. It’s an excuse to kind of do nothing.”

Thirty percent of those surveyed cited family or relationship issues as the reason they would take a mental health day, followed by work stress or workload, at 20 percent.

In the past, work stress has dealt with such concerns as who one is working with, the likelihood of the company being sold, and if they have a job tomorrow, according to Campbell.

What’s contributing to workers’ stress levels today is that “they have family issues going on, and they’re trying to figure out how to balance the two of them,” he said.

It’s not surprising that family/relationship issues top the reasons people take a mental health day, says Richard A. Chaifetz, ComPsych chairman and CEO, given what he called “the growing complexities of family and personal life.”

“Whether the employee is married, a caregiver or is facing the challenges of single life, relationship stress can be a major cause of distraction at work … and relationship problems are consistently among the top two reasons for calls to our employee assistance program,” he said in a press release.

Taking mental health days could be a result of workers who don’t use their vacation days or don’t use them beyond creating long weekends, Campbell acknowledged.

“We got into this mentality that people have to be apologetic” for taking time off, although that seems more prevalent among those age 35 and older, he said.

He advises employers to create a culture where it’s acceptable and encouraged—from the top down—to take vacations and unplug from work. Take note of employees who have accumulated large numbers of vacations days, signaling that they might not be taking needed time off.

“If you take regularly scheduled time off … it’s going to keep you sharp all the time,” Campbell said. “Take more than a day [at a time]; take those vacations on a routine, regular basis.”

Other reasons people say they have taken a mental health day:

  • Financial, legal and other personal issues, 15 percent.
  • Lack of energy, well being, 12 percent.
  • Boredom, no motivation, 5 percent.

Another 18 percent said they do not take mental health days.

A national Stress in America survey in September 2007 of 1,848 people for the American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, D.C., found that nearly one-third (31 percent) of employed U.S. adults have difficulty managing work and family responsibilities.

Jobs interfering with family or personal time is a significant source of stress, 35 percent told the APA, which found that stress causes more than half of Americans to fight with those close to them and that one in four people have been alienated from a friend or family member because of stress. Rent or mortgage costs also are stressing out 51 percent of Americans, the APA found.

The APA and ComPsych survey results point “to the fact that there clearly still is conflict between work and family life,” APA Assistant Executive Director David W. Ballard told SHRM Online.

“Part of that is the workplace demands that don’t turn off,” given how technology often tethers people to their jobs, the Society for Human Resource Management member said. “It’s very difficult to leave work at work … and there comes the expectation that employees are available 24 hours a day.”

In addition, the sandwich generation is “getting squeezed from both ends while being asked to handle increased workloads,” he said.

Taking an unplanned day is “not necessarily a bad thing. It really depends on the employer and the employee,” he noted.

Flexible work arrangements may help employees deal with the conflict they feel between their work and family life, Ballard suggested.

“With flexibility built in, it allows you to take care of those competing demands and still be at the best in those aspects of our life. You want everyone to function at their best.”

Employers should remember that when it comes to creating a psychologically healthy workplace, not one size fits all industries or even all positions, and employers need to design policies and practices that fit their needs

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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