Every year in the United States, 1 in 5 adults will experience mental illness. For those who seek treatment, their success in overcoming or navigating life with their illness is contingent upon their efforts and those who are assigned to help them – particularly mental health professionals. Mental health professionals who are providing direct care are tasked with assisting them in areas of socialization, therapy, coping mechanisms, daily living tasks, mastering living skills and adapting to their environments. With a responsibility of this magnitude, mental health professionals who are categorized as one of nearly 414,000 social and human services assistants often find themselves needing to focus on their own mental health through self-care, work-life balance and healthy living. However, their lack of paid time off often prevents them from accessing the adequate amount of time to do so.
“Emily,” who is reticent to use her real name for fear of job repercussions, is a graduate of a public university in North Carolina worked in the mental health field for 15 years. Throughout her time in the industry, she worked in a variety of capacities including providing one on one and group services. Working for multiple companies and agencies, the lack of paid time off (PTO), she notes, was rarely encouraged.
“In mental health, it’s all about billing,” she said. “It’s become more about the money than the clients.”
As a result, Emily has been subjected to minimal gratitude for her years of service with her own mental health not being a priority at various agencies. At a former employer, where she worked for a year and a half, Emily wasn’t made aware that the company didn’t offer PTO until she needed to take a day off. Shocked by the revelation, she found herself trying to make adjustments to accommodate both work and life outside of it.
To fit everything in, Emily had to set up her schedule to take time off when she needed it. Doing so came with consequences. If she didn’t work, she didn’t get paid. She was also required to make up time she took off. If she needed to bill for five hours a day, then she had to make up those five hours within the same billing period. In her eyes, their focus wasn’t on her being able to handle her business or illness, but her making up the time she missed so the company could get paid.
“They want their money,” she said. “The more you bill, the more they get paid. They could care less what you’ve got to do as long as you get your billing done.”
Due to the overarching theme that billing tops the priority list, time off to care for self ranks low on the list. In a position where a person is responsible for assisting patients in managing their mental health, employees providing direct care are essentially encouraged to forgo managing theirs for the company’s benefit.
At her current employer, Emily is granted PTO. Each pay period she earns a certain number of hours. They can roll over to the next year but there is a cap on how many hours she can accrue. For her, this new experience came with certain expectations that were quickly dispelled.
“I was excited to get PTO,” she said. “I expected to be able to submit my time and take time off. Oten we get emails instructing us not to ask for time off during this period and that period. I’ve never been denied time off, but I’ve been questioned. One time I was asked if I had paid for my trip because it was going to be denied if I hadn’t.”
With research confirming vacation time aids productivity, it’s situations like these that leave Emily feeling drained and burnt out. Recently, Emily had a family emergency that confirmed her suspicions. With only 17 percent of American workers having access to paid family leave, she had to utilize a portion of the PTO she accrued to address the emergency. While her supervisor was understanding and initially had no issues with her being out of work, Emily’s need for additional time resulted in comments that left her feeling uneasy.
“It wasn’t until I requested two more days off the comment, ‘Oh you’re using that PTO up,’ was made.” Emily continued, “When that was said, I felt like I needed to get back to work.”
Instead of feeling pressured, she would love to be in a position with a company that saw value in employees. Emily feels that leave packages such as the one the State of North Carolina offers is an ideal example. It sets aside time for employees to be able to address situations outside of work that may or may not be related to illness and families. She feels this is necessary to optimize health and performance at work. A recent study by Duke University reached the same conclusion.
For veterans in the mental health industry, coming to work most days is a challenge. Emily shared that she constantly reminds herself that her clients need her. She stated that it’s not their fault her agency does not promote mental health or self-care for the staff. However, she does see staff are adversely affected by this attitude.
“I think it’s more on the direct care staff,” she said. “They’re the ones that get the short end of the stick. The higher you go, the better things are.”
In a space where staffers like Emily are expected to help clients navigate their world, she hopes that by speaking up and sharing her story agencies will be prompted to take action to provide a better working environment for their employees.
“I want them to care more about the people that are actually providing the services, in the field – providing direct care, the frontliners,” said Emily, emphatically. “I want them to value us. Taking care of me would give me the energy and drive. It would make going to work easier, especially if you’re dealing with depression and anxiety. You’re no good. That goes back to the way we’re treated. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t support your clients.”
Kassaundra Shanette Lockhart is a freelance writer.