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A guide to mental health sick leave at work

Give your team the green light for taking time off work for mental health

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What is mental health sick leave?Why companies need a mental health sick leave policyHow to build a mental health sick leave policy5 ways to continuously care for your team’s mental health

Give your team proactive mental health support to prevent early struggles escalating into long-term leave.

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  • Mental health sick leave is the time off work an employee takes to recover from and look after their mental wellbeing.
  • Taking time off work for mental health doesn't mean an employee has a diagnosed mental health condition.
  • Mental health sick leave should be treated in the same way as time off work for physical illness or injury.
  • Introducing a separate mental health sick leave policy shows your team that you take mental health seriously, helping raise awareness and reducing the stigma that's often associated with poor mental health.
  • A mental health sick leave policy should include information on how to communicate taking time off work, how much time off is available, relevant information about pay, how to keep in touch, and the support available when returning to work.

What is mental health sick leave?

When an employee takes time off work for mental health, they’re taking mental health sick leave. This absence is a right and should be treated in exactly the same way as taking time off work for a physical illness or injury.

Taking time off work for mental health doesn’t necessarily mean your employee has a diagnosed mental health condition (e.g. depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, PTSD, ADHD). There are a number of reasons why one of your team might need time away from work to look after their headspace — stress, burnout, bereavement to name a few — and what’s important here is that they feel able to ask for this time off without fear of judgement or other negative consequences. 

Encouraging your team to take mental health sick leave isn’t just important for their personal mental wellbeing, it benefits your company, too. Take presenteeism: describing an employee who shows up to work everyday but is unable to do their job properly as a result of mental health struggles, presenteeism is the most expensive cost of mental health to a company. Costing £918 per employee, per year, presenteeism alone should be a big enough argument for encouraging mental health sick leave.

But, there’s more.

A report from Deloitte indicates that 61% of UK employees who left a job in the past year, or plan to leave in the next 12 months, say poor mental health is a factor. Another survey found that 81% (!) of workers rank an employer’s commitment to mental health as the most important consideration when looking for a new job. Employees value mental health support and with the high price of staff turnover, it pays to mentally support your team. 

The (UK) law on taking time off work for mental health

Before building your mental health sick leave policy, it’s important to understand the legal requirements. In the UK, there’s no specific law about mental health sick leave in particular, but there are laws surrounding sick leave and mental health that employers do need to be aware of. 

As we’ve already mentioned, the process for taking time off work for mental health and physical health should be the same. We’ll cover what this looks like in more detail shortly, but for now, we wanted to briefly discuss what happens if you have an employee with a mental health condition that classifies as a disability — because in this case, they’ll be protected by disability discrimination law.

A disability is one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. Mental health however, is not. This means it’s only unlawful to discriminate against someone due to mental health if their condition fits the Equality Act description of a disability, which is:

“A physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on an individual’s ability to do normal, daily activities.”

It’s worth noting that none of your employees need to have their mental health condition diagnosed in order for it to be classified as a disability. 

As an employer, you also have a legal duty of care for your employees. That is, to protect the physical and emotional health, safety, and welfare of your team while they’re at work.

To avoid getting too distracted by the murkiness of mental health and employment law, we recommend taking a look at a couple of our other articles that do a much better job of explaining what’s what:

👉 An employer’s duty of care and legal responsibilities for mental health at work

👉 An employers guide to mental health discrimination at work

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Build a mental health sick leave policy to encourage your team to prioritise their mental health and explain how to go about doing it.

Why companies need a mental health sick leave policy

Just one last time: employers should treat time off work for mental health just as seriously as any physical illness or injury that prevents an employee from coming to work. 

If that’s the case, then you may wonder why having a separate mental health sick leave policy is necessary. Well, we think it forms an integral part of your company’s approach to mental health. 

A dedicated mental health sick leave policy signals to your team that you take mental health seriously and removes any ambiguity about taking time off work for mental health. For your team, it provides reassurance that they can — and should — take time off if they’re feeling mentally unwell without needing to ask HR or another manager what the ‘company line’ is, which can be a source of worry for someone struggling with their mental health. And for your managers, the policy ensures every employee is treated fairly and helps them comfortably support a team member going through a difficult time.

By introducing a mental health sick leave policy, you’re baking mental health into the culture of your company, helping raise awareness and reduce the stigma often sadly associated with mental struggles.

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How to build a mental health sick leave policy

The specifics of a mental health sick leave policy are up to your company (and the law on sick leave), but here’s a list of things we think should be included to make sure your workers are properly cared for. 

As part of this policy framework, we’ve included what the law says (i.e., ACAS etc) and an insight into how we do things at Spill.

☎️ How do employees let the company know they’re taking time off work for mental health?

If one of your employees needs to take time off work for mental health, they’ll need to let the company know. You may have an official company ‘bottom line’ for how you prefer your team to do this, otherwise your managers and their reports can decide on how best to communicate this.

👉 What the law says: There’s no law as such when it comes to reporting time off work, but employees should let you know either in the time limit you’ve specified, and if not, within seven days.

👉 How we do it at Spill: At Spill, we ask the team to let their manager know about taking time off work as soon as possible. This can be an email or Slack message to their manager. We also encourage letting other people who are impacted know — this could be by using the 🤒 emoji as a Slack status or dropping a message in a channel to team mates.   

🗓️ How much time off work do employees get for mental health sick leave?

There are two parts to this section, which we’ve split up into short-term leave and long-term leave. Otherwise, all we want to say here is, remember time off work for mental health should be treated in the same way as time off work for physical health. So, assuming you have a sick leave policy in place already, the process will be the same.

Short-term mental health sick leave

👉 What the law says: The official line is that your employees can tell you they’re not well enough to work without needing to provide medical evidence for seven calendar days, including weekends. This is known as ‘self-certifying’. To get more time off, an employee must get a sick note (or ‘fit note’) from a registered healthcare professional (i.e. a GP, hospital doctor, pharmacist, registered nurse, occupational therapist etc.). You can only ask for a fit note if your employee has been off for more than seven days in a row, including weekends.

👉 How we do it at Spill: “We made a company decision to offer two weeks of self-certifying sick leave instead of one,” says Anna, Spill’s VP Operations. “This is because one week didn’t feel like much and we trust people at Spill to take time off if they really need it."

Long-term mental health sick leave

👉 What the law says: Employees who are on sick leave for more than four weeks are considered as ‘long-term sick’. These employees are still entitled to annual leave. It’s possible to dismiss an employee who is long-term sick but as an employer, there are a lot of things you need to do before this becomes possible: Citizens Advice has a lot of useful information. For an employee on long-term sick leave, you are required by law to provide reasonable adjustments to aid their return: we’ll cover this a bit later on in the framework.

👉 How we do it at Spill: Spill considers long-term leave as any period longer than two weeks. For more than two weeks off, Spill employees need to get a fit note. There are many reasons for taking long-term mental health sick leave, and Spill has covered these  in the company policy, as well as a commitment to providing reasonable adjustments to any employee who needs them: 

An extract from Spill's sick leave policy

💰 How much do employees get paid when they’re on mental health sick leave?

Once again, this will mirror the policy you have in place for physical health sick leave.

👉 What the law says: Statutory sick pay is available to employees for up to 28 weeks and amounts to £109.40 per week. As an employer, you can offer more than that via a sick pay scheme but you cannot give less.

👉 How we do it at Spill: It’s possible for Spill employees to take up to 28 weeks of paid long-term sick each year and Spill’s sick pay scheme offers more than the statutory amount: 

  • Full pay for up to four weeks
  • Half pay for the next four weeks after the first month
  • Quarter pay for 20 weeks after the two-month mark

🏝️ What happens if an employee needs to take mental health sick leave while they’re on holiday?

Mental health issues don’t take a break just because your employee does! Be sure to consider how to handle this situation to make sure every employee is treated fairly — and don’t forget it goes both ways: your employee might take holiday while on mental health sick leave but equally, they may need to take mental health sick leave while they’re on holiday.

👉 What the law says: An employee can take paid annual leave while on mental health sick leave — it’s up to them to request the time off. If you approve the request, their sick leave can be paused while they’re on holiday and they should get holiday pay while they’re away. Sick leave then continues if they’re still not well enough to return to work after their annual leave. If an employee is sick while on holiday, they’ll need to tell you if they want to take any of their annual leave as sick leave. In this case, they’ll get statutory sick pay for the time they were sick (if entitled to it) and can keep the time they were sick to use as annual leave another time. There’s a lot more to annual leave and sick leave, so we’d recommend giving the ACAS website a read to find out more.

👉 How we do it at Spill: As they say, when it’s not broke, don’t fix it, and in this instance Spill follows the general guidance without any extra bells and whistles.

🗣️ What’s the best way to keep in touch with an employee during mental health sick leave?

Agree with your employees how to stay in touch during an absence: particularly for an employee on mental health sick leave, semi-regular contact can help them in their recovery. 

👉 What the law says: How and when you keep in touch with an employee on mental health sick leave is largely up to you, the employer: there’s no particular law guiding this. But, you do have to contact your employee by law about a promotion or other job opportunities, redundancies, or other company reorganisations that could affect their job. Again, ACAS has more advice on the matter.

👉 How we do it at Spill: One of Spill’s core values is ‘bring everyone along’ and this extends to any Spill employees on long-term leave. We generally let managers and their reports decide on the structure and cadence of keeping in touch but in general, encourage managers to check-in every two weeks.

🤝 What support do employees need to return to work after taking mental health sick leave?

This part is really important and not one to be glossed over. Once your employee feels able to come back to work, make sure you support them back into their role: returning to work after time off for mental health can be a daunting prospect.

👉 What the law says: The main legality to keep in mind is that of ‘reasonable adjustments’: if your employee’s mental health condition classifies as a disability, the Equality Act 2010 means you must make reasonable adjustments to make sure they’re not disadvantaged in the workplace. Failure to make reasonable adjustments for mental health that are appropriate and necessary for an employee counts as mental health discrimination at work.

👉 How we do it at Spill: While setting up an informal ‘return-to-work’ meeting with an employee who’s been on sick leave for mental health isn’t a legal requirement, it is advised. Not only is it a nice and supportive thing to do, but it’s helpful for you as the employer, too. At Spill, we encourage managers to call a team member two weeks before their planned return to make a personalised ‘return-to-work’ plan. This call let’s managers and employees:

  • Catch-up about what’s been going on 
  • Decide on a phased return or flexible working hours to gently ease back into the swing of things
  • Agree on any reasonable adjustments to help the employee with their workload
  • Discuss if and how to let the wider team know about that employee’s current situation

Get our free return-to-work checklist for managers to find out more about structuring this conversation.

How to implement a mental health sick leave policy

It’s all very well having a mental health sick leave policy but as with any new policy, you’ll need to roll it out across the team. We’ve put together a few ideas but the main thing to focus on (well, two things) is education and example: make sure everyone in your team understands not just the logistics of the policy, but why you’re introducing it, and then show it being used. If leadership takes mental health sick leave (even just a day), the rest of your team will feel safe and able to as well.

🔓 Make the mental health sick leave policy easy to access

Workplace policies are only useful if your team knows they exist. Policies tend to be bandied around when a new employee starts the company, but make sure your team can read them whenever they want. At Spill, we have a whole Notion section dedicated to the company’s policies, but you could also store them in a Google Drive folder (that everyone can access), on your company’s intranet or wiki, or even email them round the team so everyone has a digital copy in their inboxes.

📢Make a fuss when the policy launches

There’s no point creating a mental health sick leave policy and then releasing it into the wild without any kind of announcement. Use the policy launch as an opportunity to highlight other mental health support in place at your company, or combine it with an open forum or mental health talk. Employees are often reluctant to take mental health sick leave because they’re afraid of the stigma, judgement, or negative consequences. So, use the launch of your new policy to reassure them that it’s there to be used and that taking time off for mental health is encouraged.

👨‍🏫 ‍Train your managers so they know how the mental health sick leave policy works

Remember when we said lead by example? Well, this extends to training your managers in how your new policy works. Make sure anyone with a report understands why you’re introducing the new policy, how it works, and how it fits in with the other mental health support in the company. When someone is struggling, it can be difficult to ask for help — your managers are key in making sure struggling employees get the help they need.

👀 Regularly review and update your policies

Companies change: people come and go, priorities shift, and sometimes a policy that made sense when you were a 5-person team no longer works for a team of 20 people. It’s really important to regularly put in time to review your company’s policies — and this doesn’t just mean a cursory read for typos. Consider running a short employee survey or open discussion to gather feedback on how the policy is working, and then look to make changes based on your findings. Don’t forget to keep things in check with your legal obligations, too, and when you do update a policy, be sure to clearly communicate the changes you’ve made and why. 

5 ways to continuously care for your team’s mental health

A mental health sick leave policy provides guidance on how to support an employee taking time off for mental health. But, humans have a remarkable ability to mask what’s really going on in their heads and hearts, meaning it can be difficult to spot when someone is struggling. Here are five additional things you can do to look after your team’s mental health and prevent any problems they have from escalating.

  1. Build a workplace mental health policy: and yes, this is different to the mental health sick leave policy. A workplace mental health policy acts as your company's commitment to creating a mentally safe and healthy working environment, while also providing a framework to help tackle mental health challenges your team may experience. 
  2. Introduce proactive mental health support like Spill: note proactive, not reactive. Spill gives your team next-day access to high-quality therapy but unlike most other workplace therapy solutions, Spill also proactively supports employees showing early signs of mental strain to prevent them from spiralling. This combination of personal therapy and proactive care has been shown to be the most effective way (financially and otherwise) to mentally care for employees.
  3. Complete a stress at work risk assessment: a legal requirement for UK companies, a stress at work risk assessment examines what the main causes of workplace stress might be, who’s affected, and what the company is doing to control the risks. Workload, working pattern, training and resources, workplace relationships, and role clarity can all be sources of workplace stress and by reviewing each area in turn, you’ll be managing and (hopefully!) reducing your team’s experience of stress at work.
  4. Carry out an employee wellbeing survey: measure your team’s workplace wellbeing to find out how they’re doing, where they might be struggling, and what support they need. These surveys are a valuable way to get honest feedback on a company-wide level, just be sure to dedicate proper time into reviewing and actioning your findings.
  5. Lead from the top down: no link to a resource for this one, just a gentle reminder that company culture starts from the top. If you want your team to engage with their mental health and use the policies and solutions the company provides, it has to start with the leadership team. Model the behaviours you want to see, share your own mental health experiences, take mental health sick leave,and upskill your managers to spot the signs and symptoms of a struggling employee. 

Supporting your team’s mental health at work is an ongoing project, but a mental health sick leave policy is just one of many tools available to you to help champion, respect, and look after your team’s brainpower.

How does mental health sick leave work for part-time employees?
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Download a free mental health sick leave policy template

Build a mental health sick leave policy to encourage your team to prioritise their mental health and explain how to go about doing it.

Spill spots poor mental health for you and gets support to those who need it most.

Find out more about Spill's proactive mental health support