Taking stress leave or a mental health day from work

Finance Journalist · 26 November 2020
If you have a cold or the flu, you probably wouldn’t think twice about calling in sick to work. But if you’re feeling stressed, burnt out or struggling with your mental health, would you feel comfortable taking the day off?

The coronavirus outbreak has taken a toll on many Australians’ mental health. According to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there have been notable rises in the use of crisis lines and mental health services since the onset of the pandemic. For example, contacts to Beyond Blue increased by 38.6% between 10 August and 6 September 2020 compared to the same time last year, Lifeline calls were up 15.3% over the same period and contacts to Kids Helpline increased by 24.5%.

Although the conversation around mental health has broadened in recent years, there can still be some stigma surrounding the issue. Australian workplaces are not immune to this, and mental health charity SANE suggests that many managers are uncomfortable talking about mental illness at work.

Naturally, your mental health may have an impact on – or even be exacerbated by – your work life. A 2014 report by Heads Up found that one in five Australians had taken time off work in the previous 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious or mentally unwell.

It’s not just employees who can benefit from taking mental health days where needed. According to the Black Dog Institute, absenteeism and low performance due to mismanaged mental health conditions cost Australian businesses up to $12 billion per year, while a report by PwC commissioned by Beyond Blue found that for every dollar a workplace spends on creating a mentally healthy environment, an average of $2.30 is actually returned in benefits.

So, if you’re grappling with stress, anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions, taking time off work could be one way to help with your recovery. But what would this involve? And what are your rights?

Can you use personal leave for mental health days?

Under the National Employment Standards, most full-time employees are entitled to take 10 days of paid personal leave (sometimes called sick leave) each year. According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, employees can take this paid sick leave if they can’t work due to a personal illness or injury. This can include stress, Fair Work says. Although, as the Employment Law Practical Handbook explains, ‘stress leave’ is not a category of leave by itself.

Whether you can take personal leave for other mental health issues will generally depend on your individual contract of employment, or your award conditions if applicable. Importantly, your employer cannot discriminate against you just because you’re dealing with mental health issues. Under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), an employer cannot take adverse action against you based on your mental health. So, for example, you can’t be dismissed, demoted or offered different terms and conditions of employment which would leave you worse off overall.

What do you have to tell your employer?

Whether or not you tell your boss about your mental health challenges is a personal choice. According to headspace, you are not legally required to tell your employer unless it has the potential to endanger your safety or the safety of your co-workers. However, depending on your employment contract, you may have to provide a medical certificate for any personal leave you request.

What if you are experiencing work-related stress?

If you are experiencing severe work-related stress, you may be entitled to receive workers’ compensation. According to Safe Work Australia, 7,200 Australians are compensated for work-related mental health conditions each year, accounting for around 6% of all workers’ compensation claims.

To make a successful claim, you will need to prove that your condition was caused by your employment. For example, this could be the case if you’ve experienced a traumatic event or bullying at work. If you want to make a claim, it could be a good idea to seek legal advice.

Can you take out income protection if you have a mental health condition?

When applying for an income protection policy, you generally have a duty to tell the insurer if you have a mental health condition, or if you have had one in the past. If you disclose an existing mental health condition, you may be seen by the insurer as being more likely to make future claims relating to a mental illness. As a result, depending on your circumstances, your insurer may decline to offer cover entirely, cover you but with an exclusion for claims relating to mental health conditions, or cover you but with a premium loading to reflect your existing condition.

Insurers vary in their policies for covering people with an existing mental health condition, but generally speaking it may prove difficult to get a policy that would cover you for mental health related claims if you have an existing condition. Mental health support organisation Beyond Blue has in the past called on insurers to “change their practices towards people with mental health conditions who are denied coverage, charged higher premiums, or have their claim rejected for travel, income protection, total and permanent disability and life insurance”.

If you are interested in an income protection policy, it could be worth checking with providers regarding their policies, and carefully checking any policy documents for exclusions and other conditions that apply before committing.

Does income protection cover mental health-related claims?

This largely depends on the insurer. According to Zurich, mental health conditions are the second-most common cause of income protection claims in the Australian insurance industry. As previously mentioned, some insurers may add a mental health exclusion to your policy, particularly if you have an existing condition. Others may, as a blanket rule, not pay a benefit for any claims arising directly or indirectly from a mental illness or condition.

Therefore, you might like to consider shopping around for policies and carefully read the product disclosure statement (PDS) and any other relevant information so you can find a policy that suits your individual circumstances.

If you or someone you know needs support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. If it is an emergency, call 000.

Image Source: Warpboyz (Shutterstock)

About Tamika Seeto:

Tamika SeetoTamika Seeto is a Finance Journalist at Canstar. She joined the team after completing a Bachelor of Journalism and Bachelor of Laws (Honours) at QUT, and has past experience writing for a variety of publications across news, music and the arts. At Canstar, Tamika’s writing tackles everything from superannuation and insurance to the latest budgeting apps worth downloading. Tamika understands the world of finance can seem daunting at times, so she strives to break it down in a way that is easy to understand and relatable. You can follow Tamika on LinkedIn, and Canstar on Facebook.

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