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Introducing the 'mental health sick day’ – how we built a mental health policy that makes a real difference

Supporting your team’s mental health in a way that makes a tangible impact is a messy and complex challenge. In many small companies, this can mean settling for paying lip service over actually changing behaviours. In this post, we explore Charlie's journey towards a mental health policy that makes a real difference.

For the first couple of years I worked at Charlie, we had a framed certificate hanging up in the office. We actually moved offices three or four times in that period, but somehow it would always find its way along with us to be mounted on a fresh wall in a new corner of London.

That certificate was the Sanctus Mental Health Pledge and it displayed this promise:

“We pledge to create an open environment where mental health is supported and people can bring their full selves to work."

Beneath were the signatures of Charlie’s founders, Rob O’Donovan, Ben Branson-Gateley and Tom Carrington-Smith.

Over the many months it hung in our office, I must have seen that pledge hundreds of times. Yet as time wore on, I felt it began to encapsulate many of Charlie’s shortcomings when it came to supporting our team’s mental health.

The pledge was there, hanging on the wall, saying all the right things – but it wasn’t having an effect on how we acted in reality. In the same way, we’d allowed there to become a disconnect between the promises we made on mental health and what was really happening.

Don’t get me wrong, Sanctus’ pledge is a fantastic initiative. It’s helped focus attention on the challenge of mental health at hundreds of small businesses, and the work they are doing is absolutely vital.

But I think their team would be first to recognise the trap we'd fallen into – we knew mental health was important, but we’d failed to grasp the nettle and make real changes.

Small companies and the challenge of mental health

That trap is something I think nearly everyone running a small business will recognise.

In 2020, we all understand that work and life have serious overlap. You do not leave your mental health ‘by the door’ when you arrive at work, and what happens in the office always comes home with you. Everyone working in Operations or HR roles at a small company understands better than ever that they have a responsibility to support their team’s mental health.

We all know we should be doing somethingit’s just not clear what that is.

Let’s face it; mental health is a difficult, challenging and emotionally fraught topic. What can a company do that will actually make a difference to someone suffering from severe anxiety or depression? It’s hard enough for people to understand what they need for themselves – let alone what you should offer a team of 20 or 30 individuals.

It’s for this reason that most companies end up like we did at Charlie – talking around the mental health problem without it ever translating into real changes to attitude or behaviour.

At the start of the year, Charlie’s CEO Ben Gatelely wrote about our commitment to make work better in 2020. One of Ben’s central points was that this mission began with ourselves and how we made work better for the people we had in the room.

If we were going to walk that walk, we needed to change the way we supported our team’s mental health.

‘If you don’t measure something, you can’t improve it’

The first step in changing anything is understanding how you’re going to measure it.  Without a set of baseline metrics, we’d never know if our efforts were having an impact – that meant running a survey of our team to find out what was happening on the ground.

Now, Charlie’s software comes with a suite of engagement surveys already built-in. In this situation, though, we needed to ask some questions particular to our own company context. We wanted to dig down on the specific levers we could pull to improve the way we supported our team’s mental health – only then would we be able to make a real and tangible difference.

So instead, we ran this survey to discover how we were doing at Charlie, asking our team to report on their experiences over the previous 6 months. If I’m honest, the results took me by surprise.

Here’s a breakdown of what we learned:

1- Half of the Charlie team were using sick days to take time off for mental health reasons


2- Over 70% of us were not telling our manager the real reason for that time off...


3- ...and nearly a third of the Charlie team weren’t discussing their mental health with their manager at all.


4- Most of the company had forced themselves to come to work even when their mental health didn’t feel up to it...


5- ...and nearly half of the company didn’t even know what they were meant to do in that situation.


Having seen those numbers, I wasn’t feeling too great about how we were supporting our team at Charlie.

In many respects, Charlie is an incredibly open environment – when it comes to our company finances, our business strategy, hiring decisions and even firing decisions, we will always ‘default to transparency’.

Likewise, we had been successful in creating an honest dialogue around challenges we faced in our work – we’d always worked hard at respecting our team’s boundaries and I don’t think our team was overworked or overstressed.

But when it came to our mental health, those numbers painted a different picture – one of a company that kept mental health challenges from our team mates and hid problems from our managers.

This survey made it really clear that, when it came to building a mental health policy that really did change behaviours, we had plenty of work to do.

How Charlie is supporting our team’s mental health in 2020

1- Introducing Personal Days – the ‘mental health sick day’

Using sick leave to take time off for mental health reasons is entirely understandable – all of us occasionally have those days when we just need to take a breather.

But it can also be quite a damaging habit for a couple of reasons:

  1. First, it means we carry on failing to discuss mental health, reinforcing the stigma that surrounds it.
  2. Secondly, it allows minor problems to go unnoticed until they become really serious challenges.

If we were going to begin dismantling the stigma that surrounds our mental health, we needed to encourage our team to label mental health days for what they really are.

That process began with introducing Personal Days – a special type of time off that allows our team to signal what is really happening in their lives rather than hide behind a ‘Sick Day’ catch-all.

Now, our team can book a Personal Day within our own Charlie account as easily as they’d book a holiday or tell us they were working from home.


That booking would be logged in Charlie, making sure the rest of the company knows that team member is off work and needs some space.


Booking a Personal Day in Charlie also creates a notification in our team’s Slack channel, just to make sure we’re not missing a beat.


We set up Personal Days by creating what’s called a ‘custom leave type’ within our team’s own Charlie account – any of our users can do the same for their own company by following these steps.

2- We’ve removed the uncertainty from our mental health process

One of the secondary benefits of introducing Personal Days was it gave us a chance to clarify what we expected from our team on the days they didn’t feel able to come in to work.

The fact that our team wasn’t sure what they were meant to do was leaving room for stigma to assert itself.

So at the same time we unveiled Personal Days, we shared with our team the two options open to them on days they didn’t feel able to come in to work:

  1. Book a Sick Day but message their manager to let them know they are taking the day off for mental health reasons.
  2. Book a Personal Day and still message their manager to let them know why they are taking the day off.

I’m very aware that booking a Personal Day can feel like a very public act – I hoped that this choice allowed us to strike a balance between encouraging honesty and respecting each other’s boundaries.  

Over time, we’re hoping we’ll see a shift from people choosing option 1) towards choosing 2).

3- Managers now check in on team members' mental health in every one-to-one

Everyone at Charlie has an informal catch-up with their manager at least once a month. These are to talk about PDPs or how they are moving through our progression framework.

We now ask all our people managers to at least touch on the subject of mental health – even if only in passing – to give team members the space to discuss it if they want to.

4- We’ve given team members other opportunities to open up

Talking to your manager about your mental health is a great place to start – but managers aren’t professional therapists and we shouldn’t pretend that they are.

We now offer the Charlie team access to Spill, a digital counselling service that gives them access to therapy run by qualified mental health professionals.

A mental health policy that makes a real impact

Right from the outset of this process, we wanted our new mental health policy to be a catalyst for real change in our behaviours and not just an exercise in lip service.

The only way we would know if we’d been successful would be by measuring its impact – so in a couple of months’ time, we’ll be running that survey again to see if those numbers have moved in the right direction.

The policy we ended up building is very specific to Charlie’s context and the changes we wanted to see – but if you’re interested in using our policy as a reference point, you can download it here.


It’s also really important to bear in mind that this policy is very much a work in progress – there’s so much more that we’d like to do in this area, but I’d like to think that we’re taking steps in the right direction.

If you're looking to build a mental health policy that works for your small business, it's worth checking out our HR Advice service.

Our advisors work with you to create bespoke company policies built for your unique business context. To find out more, you can book in a call now.

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