Say you have an employee called Madalyn. One morning, you email her with a task for her to do.

Instead of her usual reply saying “I’ll get cracking with it”, you’re surprised to see this hit your inbox:

“Hey team, I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully, I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%. Thanks.”

You haven’t authorised this absence. It’s the first time you’ve heard anything about it. So what do you do?

If you’re anything like Ben Congleton, CEO of Olark Live Chat in the USA, you reply thanking your employee for her honesty and “the importance of using sick days for mental health.”

Madalyn shared this personal exchange on Twitter. It went viral, getting more than 16,000 retweets (and counting) as well as making the news as far away as Australia.

The story shows how global attitudes to mental health are changing and how a new absence term has entered the workplace lexicon: “mental health day”. So what does this mean for UK employers?

Absences can be a good thing

Although you hope for your employees to have perfect attendance records, life doesn’t work out that way. And time off for illness—whether physical or mental—is good for staff and your business.

If your employee, Madalyn, can deal with her mental health issue as soon as possible, it will help her control it before it causes a long-term absence. And, if she’s away from your business for a shorter time, you’ve a better chance of keeping her engaged and productive.

When you create a culture where it’s okay to take time off for mental health issues, you reassure unwell staff by reducing any stigma that may exist in your business.

Be wary of discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 protects people with mental health issues by classing certain conditions as disabilities. But while other mental health conditions don’t meet the definition of a disability, they can still cause physical symptoms that do.

Don’t discriminate against your employee or treat her less favourably if she takes time off work for a disability-related absence. Make reasonable adjustments to make her return easier—remove anything that may limit her ability to work.

Above all, if you feel you want to take action against your employee for her mental health-related absences, be wary of committing discrimination.

Be there for your people

Keep in touch with any staff members who take time off for mental health issues. It shows that you appreciate them as a part of your team and that you’re supporting them through a difficult time.

Don’t overdo it. Constant phone calls will make your employees feel like you’re hounding them to come back to work.

Once your employee does return, follow a normal process. Hold a return-to-work meeting to talk through the absence and see if there’s anything your business can do to help her stay in work.

Act now to reduce absences

Madalyn’s “mental health day”, her CEO’s reaction, and the worldwide messages of support that followed show us how employers now do more to guide employees through tougher times.

One of the best ways you can help staff is to give them access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). It’s a compassionate and confidential support network available online, over the phone and in person to help staff with their physical and mental wellbeing.

EAPs are growing in popularity because employers realise that they give their businesses a healthier, more productive workforce with fewer absences.

See how an EAP will help your business. Call Health Assured today on 0844 982 2493.