The occasional mental health day can help people cope with real life
By John Fries
You just got
chewed out by a customer for something you weren't responsible for.
The phone rings incessantly, and the work is piling up. You've worked
past 8 o'clock for the past three nights. A co-worker has become hostile
Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful just to call off from work, curl up under
the blankets and veg out all day?
Not just wonderful,
but healthy, said Michael Crabtree, a professor in the psychology
department at Washington & Jefferson College.
taking what he calls a "mental health day" once in a while to recharge
Call in "sick" if you have to, he says. If you don't, the intermittent
stress could make you physically sick. Half of all physical problems
have a psychological connection.
needs are seen as very important, our culture doesn't validate psychological
needs as important, and we often don't realize that we're wearing
ourselves down if the psychological needs aren't addressed," said
Crabtree, a stress management therapist.
Dealing with family
responsibilities may compound the stress at work.
While many companies
provide employees with a bank of sick days - generally to be used
only in case of unexpected illness - research indicates that they're
often used for other reasons.
For 12 years,
CCH Inc., a human resources firm based in Riverwoods, Ill., has been
conducting an annual survey to track the reasons for unscheduled absences
in the workplace. More than 330 human resources executives, representing
a total of nearly 2 million employees, responded to the 2002 survey.
Lori Rosen, a
CCH attorney and workplace analyst, said the study shows that employees
are taking more sick time off to tend to personal and family needs
than for actual illness. In fact, the use of stress as a reason for
absence dropped from 19 to 12 percent between 2001 and 2002. But use
of personal needs as an excuse nearly doubled, going from 11 to 21
Real illness prompted
a third of employees to call off sick in 2002 and 2001; dealing with
personal needs or families issues made up half the absences.
In many of today's
families, all members are working, leaving no one at home to provide
support, Rosen said.
"Also, many employees
have reprioritized their lives over the past year. We're seeing that
their loyalties are with themselves and their families."
trying to accommodate these needs, she said. "Employers understand
that this is the time we live in, and that family and personal time
are offering benefits like flexible time-off plans or a lump sum of
days that are available for employees' use.
of local companies interviewed said they weren't aware of employees
using sick days as "mental health days", but all acknowledged the
need to address stress, and have implemented programs to help employees.
that employers address stress in the workplace," said Dr. Bruce Rabin,
medical director of UPMC's Healthy Lifestyles Program, which provides
a range of lifestyle-related programs and services for businesses
and the public.
are at an increased risk for atherosclerotic heart disease and heart
attacks," he said. "And employers are affected as well. People who
have high stress levels or are depressed use health care resources
more than others do. A depressed employee's cost can be 150 percent
or greater than employees who are not depressed."
What can be done?
provide a person to talk with employees, but a brief discussion about
stress doesn't work. You must have a sustained effort."
That's what drives
the UPMC Healthy Lifestyles Stress Coping Program for Employees, an
innovative, 21-week series that was introduced at UPMC McKeesport
and is now under way at UPMC South Side, where some community members
are participating alongside hospital employees.
is not only to change participants' approach to coping with stress
and anxiety, but to teach them how to have a healthier lifestyle.
sessions are scheduled throughout the day to accommodate a variety
of schedules, and include instruction in, and practice of, techniques
such as deep breathing to cope with anxiety and guided imagery for
relaxation. Participants also are encouraged to increase their physical
activity, be more socially interactive and to develop their spirituality
or get involved in religious activities, which can help the brain
participants shows the program is achieving its objectives, Rabin
said. "One person had had a heart attack, along with a number of other
problems - was overweight, a smoker, didn't get enough exercise and
had poor stress coping skills - and wrote to say how beneficial the
program had been.''
A local company
that has tried to help employees balance work and family is PNC's
Financial Services Group. Five years ago, it created a Work/Life and
Diversity department that provides the group's 12,000 employees with
"resources to make it easier to navigate between work and life," according
to Heather Buehler, the group's vice president and manager of Work/Life
was established after the company began looking at its core values,
one of which focuses on employees' quality of life," she said. "We
respect the whole person and recognize that our employees have personal
Rather than the
company providing traditional sick days, employees can take "occasional
absence days," when they're not feeling well, have a sick child at
home or have to deal with an emergency.
PNC also offers
its Life Balance Employee Assistance Program, which offers an array
of such programs as stress management and smoking cessation classes,
annual health fairs, lunch-and-learn seminars, and referrals to professionals,
from mental health counselors and plumbers to cat sitters and on-site