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Mental health days shouldn't be stigmatised

26 July 2017


An employee, Madalyn Parker, recently sent her chief executive an email saying that she was taking a couple of days off work to focus on her mental health.

Parker said that hopefully she would be back the next week, refreshed and back to 100 per cent.

If you were the chief executive how would you respond? Perhaps not as understandingly as Parker's boss at Michigan-based software company Olark, Ben Congleton, did.

He emailed her: "I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this".

"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 organisations.

"You are an example to us all and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work."

Would your manager ask for a medical certificate, or would their response be similar to Congleton's?

Parker shared the emails with the world on Twitter. The tweets have gone viral and provoked much debate.

New Zealand is a country where a lot of people suffer from mental illness and certainly where we have the highest rate of youth suicide in the developed world.

Health surveys show that one in six adults have been diagnosed with a common mental disorder at some point in their lives.

Employers in New Zealand are required to make sick leave available to their employees under the Holidays Act. The act does not define what it means to be sick, so the decision is largely left to the employer as to whether the worker's condition is covered by sickness.

One in six Kiwis are diagnosed with a mental illness at some stage in their lives.

Like most disputed definitions, the courts have been asked to help out.

In 1999 a New Zealand case involving a company called Kelcold had the Court of Appeal reaching for dictionaries. The dictionaries perhaps did not advance things greatly.

In the end the court turned to the traditional leading English case involving Malone and the St Helen's Industrial Cooperative Society.

In the decision from 1933, Lord Justice Scrutton observed that there were three well-recognised meanings of the word "sickness".

Firstly, being affected by nausea, as when seasick; secondly incapacitated through disease; and thirdly, a well-recognised meaning by which sickness is contrasted by health, that is sickness is bodily incapacity as distinguished from bodily health.

The Court of Appeal was satisfied that the third meaning was the sense in which "sick" was used. A broad definition was adopted – a worker is entitled to special leave where absent from work for health-related reasons.

When people are genuinely unwell, we should encourage them to restore their health before returning to work.

"Health-related reasons" can also extend to regular medical appointments.

In 2004 the Labour Inspector brought a case against a bakery on behalf of one of the bakery staff.

The employee, Glennis Lowrie, suffered from a degenerative kidney disease that required regular checkups with a specialist.

Twice Lowrie took time off for the specialist checkups, and twice the bakery deducted the time from her annual leave. The bakery said that Lowrie was not incapacitated, and therefore was not sick.

The Employment Relations Authority found in favour of Lowrie. Lowrie was absent from work for health-related reasons directly relating to her ongoing disease and therefore qualified for sick leave.

Certainly there is plenty of room to embrace many a health disorder under the court's definition, and maybe the Michigan chief executive Ben Congleton gives us a good way forward.

Where we believe people are genuinely unwell, we should encourage them to restore their health before returning to work.

Hopefully New Zealand can become more accepting of mental illness and more encouraging of people trying to recover.

Generally New Zealanders are caring people, and it would be great to see our suicide and negative mental health statistics decline.


Cullen - The Employment Law Firm is one of only eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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