Why we should be ‘calling in unhappy’ at work

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by unhappiness, the last thing you feel like doing is gritting your teeth and gearing up for a day of work. Whether you’re experiencing a mental health issue or whether you’re simply dealing with a passing mood slump, coping with the demands of the working day when you’re out of sorts can feel like wading through concrete. Basic tasks turn into unfathomable chores; simple requests from colleagues become veiled pass-agg jibes; criticism that you’d normally brush off feels unbearable.  

On a day like this, the temptation is to cut your losses and call in sick: when you’re labouring under the cloud of low mood, there’s little chance that you’re going to be able to even pretend to look productive. But instead of citing mental health as the reason behind our absence, many of us will feign physical sickness instead. We’ll temporarily develop a croaky voice in order to sound more flu-stricken over the phone, or tell a dramatic story about a bout of food poisoning in order to skirt around the truth – because despite all the campaigns and pastel-coloured Instagram infographics telling us that it’s “good to talk”, the stark fact is that opening up about mental health is still incredibly difficult. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you could just call in “unhappy” instead, with no questions asked?  

For employers at Pang Dong Lai supermarket chain in China’s Henan province, this is becoming a reality. Speaking at a business conference last month, the company’s founder Yu Donglai revealed that his staff can take up to 10 “unhappy days” annually, on top of their usual sick leave and holiday entitlement. “I want every staff member to have freedom,” he said. “Everyone has times when they’re not happy, so if you’re not happy, do not come into work.” Yu also made it very clear that managers aren’t allowed to turn down their employees’ requests for this leave either. “Denial is a violation,” he added.  

China is known for its relentless working culture: the controversial “966” system, whereby many employees are expected to work from 9am to 9pm, six days per week, is seen as a badge of honour for some tech industry workers (despite the fact that this practice is actually illegal). Only last week, the head of PR at the country’s biggest search engine Baidu came under fire for sharing videos glorifying over-work and suggesting that employees shouldn’t complain about 50-day work trips. But even though the expectations don’t tend to be quite so extreme in the UK (unless you’re working for a magic circle law firm or an investment bank, perhaps), the introduction of “unhappiness leave” would still be a game-changer for workers here.  

In 2018, a study from the occupational health service BHSF found that two-fifths of UK employees had called in sick with a physical illness when they were actually experiencing poor mental health. Although there are some statistics to suggest that younger generations are gradually getting more comfortable with telling bosses that they need a mental health day – last year a survey by workplace wellbeing platform Unmind found that 66 per cent of workers between 16 and 25 had taken time off due to poor mental health – many of us still struggle to express this, to such an extent that even sharing a white lie feels less daunting. An umbrella term like “unhappiness leave” might make it easier for employees to honestly ask for the day off, without having to go into too many difficult details with their boss.  It’s also worlds away from “duvet day”, the cutesified term that some companies have adopted as an alternative to “mental health day”.  

Of course, there is an argument that employees taking time off for unhappiness addresses the symptom rather than the cause: it might act as a sticking plaster, covering up the issues that might be making workers feel low in the first place. A measure like this would certainly need to be paired with other measures to redress the work-life balance in the long run: flexible working, strict rules about overtime, no emails out of hours, to name a few. But in the shorter term, I’d gladly swap two working weeks of unhappiness leave for the gimmicky policies foisted on workers in the name of “mental health awareness” (a concept that, naturally, often only seems to exist in most workplaces during Mental Health Awareness Week, before conveniently dematerialising).  

Warning sign: taking a day off for ‘unhappiness’ could act as a red flag to your bosses (Getty)

Plus, a bout of “unhappiness leave” in a team would act like a warning sign. If everyone’s off under the guise of various imaginary ailments, then it’s hard to see a pattern emerge: your boss could tell themselves that flu season is to blame for the fact that half their team is wiped out, for example, rather than overwork and exhaustion.  

Wellbeing measures in the workplace are too often overly sanitised and mistake random, one-off freebies for useful action. I don’t want someone coming into the office and offering head massages in a boardroom suffused with eau de Pret sandwiches. I don’t want a lunchtime yoga class that no one actually has time to attend, or to be pointed to an internal website that tells me to download the Headspace app for the millionth time. I’d much rather be able to benefit from a scheme that recognises that, yes, “unhappiness” can sometimes have a major impact on whether you can do your job effectively or not. A policy that doesn’t shy away from calling sadness what it is. Wouldn’t you?

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