Taking a Mental Health Timeout

Madalyn Parker could have said she had the flu. She could have said that a family situation came up.

Parker, a web developer and engineer at San Francisco-based Olark Live Chat, could have offered any number of reasons for why she wouldn’t be at work that day, or the following day. In fact, she probably could have gone without saying a word to anyone, aside from letting her supervisor know.

The truth, though, was that she felt she needed some time away to concentrate on her mental well-being. And she felt obliged to tell her colleagues as much, which she did in a now-viral email.

The message—complete with the subject line “Where’s Madalyn?”—advised the Olark team that Parker would be “taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health,” adding that she hoped to be back the following week, feeling refreshed and ready to give 100 percent to her job and to her co-workers.

“Mental health day” has long been a figure of speech that employees use (away from the office) when they aren’t necessarily physically ill, but take a sick day to mentally regroup and recharge their batteries.

But many workers probably wouldn’t dare use that term when they inform their manager or colleagues of their absence, for fear that this explanation would be met with raised eyebrows or worse.

This is why Parker’s honesty is so surprising. Her chief executive officer’s response, however, might be even more startling.

“I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this,” Olark CEO Ben Congleton wrote to Parker the day after he received her initial note.

“Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health—I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations.”

HRE has written quite a bit about the stigma that still surrounds mental-health issues in the workplace. We’ve also discussed at length the progress that’s been made in terms of understanding and accepting those issues, and the strides employers have taken to help employees manage their mental-health needs.

We might be a long way from mental health days becoming “standard practice” at all organizations. But Parker’s email—and Congleton’s reply—offer compelling signs that that stigma might truly be dissipating, and that more employers are giving real thought to the role that mental well-being plays in overall employee health.

“We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance,” Congleton recently wrote for Medium. “When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”