Managing Absence

When to take sick leave for mental health problems

Deciding whether to remain at work after a diagnosis of depression or anxiety can be a difficult decision. In many cases, remaining at work can play a very important role in recovery by providing daily structure and routine, contributing to a sense of meaning and purpose, facilitating social support and maintaining financial security. The support given by supervisors and the organisation plays a key role in this.

However, as with a physical illness, some employees with a mental health problem may need time off work. In these cases, it is helpful if supervisors make it clear that all employees are entitled to be absent from work when they are not able to work productively. Some employees, especially in tough economic times, may feel guilty or worried about taking sickness absence in the first place, and may need reassurance. It is more efficient and cost effective for your business if your employees recognise when they need to take time away from work and when to return.

When employees do take sick leave, the organisation (through the supervisor or other appropriate staff member) should make sure that they understand their responsibility to keep it informed of the reasons why they are absent from work and, when known, how long the absence is likely to last.

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Janet's* story
"I managed to continue working during a period of severe depression and anxiety. For the most part I was adept at hiding my problems from others but did discuss my illness openly with my manager, who was supportive but didn't pressure me to say more than I was comfortable with.

Our work has a counselling service that I used for a period of time at a cost that was covered by the company. The counselling helped somewhat but I realised I needed more professional help. Through the medicare rebate program I started to see a registered psychologist on a weekly basis. This involved taking one afternoon off a week to attend the sessions. Again, my manager was fine with this and supportive of my decision to seek professional help. I was given afternoons off as sick leave without question. The sessions proved to be very helpful and helped me get to the bottom of a lot of my issues. I found myself to be much improved, however unfortunately I still wasn't completely back to my normal self. I am now on antidepressants and feel the best I have ever felt in my adult life.

It goes without saying that without the support of my manager I would have found it so much more difficult to pursue professional help for my illness. Furthermore, she has followed up with me regarding how I am faring and I have told her that I am now on antidepressants. I can fully trust her discretion and appreciate that she has shown such care and consideration.
Aged 25, Queensland
*not her real name
Con's* story
"I think sometimes managers make assumptions about people needing time off. They just hear about the situation and think "Well, he's definitely going to need a few weeks off for that" but it won't always be the case. It is really important to ask employees what they think is best for them, how they want to handle the situation."
HR Manager
*not his real name
Linda's* story
"Actually my last employer wasn't so supportive. She, I guess, just was ignorant which is not necessarily her fault but she didn't understand. And, like I said, it's not something you can see - it's not the chicken pox or it's not…

She used to make me feel like I was lazy. That was the worst part. Like I was lazy and that I just couldn't be bothered going to work. Which is just absolutely so far from the truth. I would have paid to go to work if I was able, you know? I would have paid to be able to live my normal life and not, not be stuck at home, you know, feeling like the world was ending. But that's just the way it goes I think.

And it's getting better. Awareness is getting better so as time goes by, I guess, awareness is gonna branch out and hopefully reach people like her a little bit."
Aged 26 Australia
* not her real name