The big debate: should businesses offer wellbeing days?

Offering time off to employees so they can prioritise their wellbeing is a growing practice among companies, as part of a broader mental health strategy. But are there pitfalls to this well-intentioned policy?

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A supermarket chain in China recently announced that it allows staff to take up to 10 “unhappy days” annually, on top of their usual sick leave and holiday. “Everyone has times when they’re not happy, so if you’re not happy, do not come into work,” said founder Yu Donglai.

The practice of offering wellbeing days, sometimes known as mental-health days, reflects a growing openness to discussing wellness in the workplace and has been lauded as an effective way to lower stress, boost morale and improve productivity. In recent years, more companies have begun including the policy as part of a broader wellbeing strategy. Both Nike and LinkedIn shut down for a week every year to allow employees time for themselves and financial services company NerdWallet offers four “self care” days a year. 

Such policies are a sign that businesses are improving when it comes to supporting staff. But the usefulness of mental-health days is debated by those who doubt their effectiveness and caution against possible risks when it comes to implementing them. A 2023 survey by Deloitte found that a third of employees do not feel comfortable speaking openly with their manager about stress or anxiety. This indicates that, just because workers are allowed to take paid time off, it doesn’t mean that they will. 

Two experts discuss whether businesses need be wary of using time off as a go-to strategy for supporting their employees with their mental health.

Mental-health days lead to a more resilient workforce

Dr. Nick Taylor 
Founder and CEO of workplace wellbeing platform Unmind 

Encouraging employees to take time off to support their mental health provides benefits for the individual, the workforce and the business as a whole. Offering these designated days acknowledges the reality that mental health is as crucial as physical health. By recognising this, employers send a powerful message: that they value their employees as people, not simply as cogs in a machine. 

When leaders endorse and use these days themselves, it reduces the stigma around mental health, encouraging workers to seek help when needed. Over time this can create a workforce which is far more resilient and supportive. 

Mental health days improve retention and boost employee morale and loyalty

Mental-health days have also been shown to improve retention by boosting employee morale and loyalty. When staff work while they are mentally unwell, their productivity and performance decline and their health is likely to deteriorate, which can lead to burnout or extended periods of absence in the long term. 

This also has a knock-on effect on wider teams, who suffer for longer due to reduced productivity from unwell colleagues, which impacts company culture and drives up turnover rates. Allowing employees to take the time they need to nurture and support their mental health allows them to return to work more focused, creative and productive.

While absence rates are easier to measure than reduced productivity, there’s evidence to support that this has a far greater economic impact on businesses. Giving employees the time and space to care for their mental health means that they can ensure that when they are working they are able to contribute fully to the organisation’s goals.

From a business perspective, the return on investment for offering mental-health days is compelling. Introducing them can empower employees to look after their mental health but, to be truly effective, they must form part of a broader strategic shift around mental health and wellbeing.

There are better ways to support wellness at work 

Shamira Graham 
Chief commercial officer at mental healthcare provider Onebright and accredited CBT therapist 

Offering employees mental-health days reflects a growing openness to talking about wellness in the workplace, but the need for support extends well beyond a day off. While such a policy may be well-intentioned, it can oversimplify ir trivialise the severity of certain mental-health disorders. There are also risks associated with using time off as a go-to strategy to support employee wellbeing. 

First off, there is little evidence to suggest that having a couple of days off work positively impacts people’s mental wellbeing in the longer term. In fact, two-thirds of employees report any benefits lasting only a few days, with mental health returning to the same level as before they took time off. 

There are workplace programmes that have proven to be less costly and far more effective in supporting employee wellbeing, such as extended leave, sabbaticals and promoting a culture which fosters a sense of purpose and belonging.

Not everyone will benefit from mental health days

Furthermore, mental-health days may be useful to resolve challenges happening outside of the office, but they fail to address the workplace factors that may be contributing to needing time off to begin with, such as burnout caused by poor management or high job strain.

Offering mental-health days is a reactionary policy, as opposed to preventative one. Instead, organisations should be investing in initiatives and resources that stop staff from getting to a place where they feel like they need to take a mental-health break in the first place. For example, having a culture where people can speak about mental health openly, having flexibility to help prevent burnout and stress and mental-health training so employees can learn to spot signs and symptoms. 

Depending on personal circumstances, not everyone will benefit from mental-health days. We have such diverse generational differences in the workplace today. What may be a replenishing day off for one employee might be less so for another. Instead of offering a one-size-fits-all policy, organisations should ask employees what they would benefit from. 

At the end of the day, without a more comprehensive support system of proper benefits, resources, access to treatment, review of job resources and demands, not to mention a company culture that supports employee wellbeing, mental-health days run the risk of becoming a gimmick.  Although well-intentioned, “mental-health days” potentially pay lip service to a significant problem. Instead companies need to invest proper time and attention into a strategic, evidence-based approach to employee mental health and wellbeing.