Mental health days -

Mental health days

The best developer who ever worked for me had an unhappy marriage. “Bob” daily performed miracles creating firmware and Windows-based code, but his home life was a battleground.

The conflict affected his work. Long hushed-but-angry phone conversations were the norm. I learned to expect “sick” leave about once a month, followed by a miraculous cure a day later.

I despise dishonest relationships of any sort. We both knew that his putative illnesses were for marriage counseling, so after a bit of negotiation we reached an accommodation. Bob could take a day a month off, with pay, as long as he continued to work his daily programming marvels.

Is it illegal to treat employees differently, giving Bob more paid leave than others doing more or less the same job? Perhaps. But each person is different, and employees have their unique needs and challenges. Part of effective management is treating folks as individuals, not as replaceable and identical cogs. This is impossible in a big company where policy is codified into non-negotiable rules. But small outfits can be more flexible, which is perhaps one of the reasons that most innovation comes from startups and tiny businesses. Treat people right, and they work wonders.

A new study has found that unscheduled absences for personal reasons increased from 20% two years ago to 24% this year. Absences due to stress jumped from 5% to 12% over the same period. Costs to companies run about $789 per employee per year.

No doubt HR people nationwide are appalled. Me, I figure this is about right. Probably the cost to the company for a well-paid engineer is much higher — maybe $2k to $4k. But that's a pittance compared to the $100k to $150k (loaded) the company spends on each developer.

The article suggests that part of the reason for the rise in these figures is the poor economy. Layoffs have left leaner staffs. Those engineers remaining have to take up the slack. People are stressed, spend too much time at work, and simply don't have the time to attend to the other aspects of their lives.

Having watched and participated in many death-march projects, I know that the concept of doing more with less is fraught with peril. Increasing workloads and more overtime leads both to burnout, as exhibited by a rise in “sick” days, and to less productive people on the job. Many of the engineers I know who put in crazy hours do a lot of personal business while at the office. They have no option; there are just not enough hours in the week to get everything done when you live in the lab. Sure, you might be at the office for 60 hours, but how many of those are spent on the phone with the kids, the car mechanic, and running a few quick errands?

The eXtreme Programming crowd promotes a 40-hour workweek, figuring that tired programmers make mistakes. Because they recognize that sometimes overtime is unavoidable, they temper that with a rule that no one works overtime two weeks in a row.

I think we should stop the deception and recognize reality. Stress and overwork kill productivity much more than a few “sick” days here and there. Give people a handful of mental health days each year. It should be OK to call the boss and tell him you just can't stand it anymore. You need to sleep in, take care of the car, or help the spouse, but tomorrow you'll be better.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at . His website is .

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Reader Feedback

Hi –
I saw your article on “Mental Health Days” on I would like to go further than you suggest. The company that causes employees to work “insane” hours is getting huge quantities of free work. Unions fought for years in the 30s & 40s to establish a reasonable work week. I submit that paid time off to “recover” is very reasonable, considering overtime put in. I work as a group leader in my company, and basically run things that way.

We have a very flexible “work anywhere, anytime” policy. If I or anyone in my group need to go off to run errands, visit the doctor, pick up kids from school, etc, just do it, and somehow make up the time at home, here, or wherever. We are sure that the time will be made up. I frequently work at home Monday and Friday, and use cable modem/broadband ethernet to connect in to work and read e-mail. It helps that our lab head has several kids in school and in to all sorts of activities, so he appreciates the efforts the rest of go through. We have a very highly motivated team, and pretty much all love what we are doing. Treating people reasonably goes a long way towards having a happy workforce.

Name withheld upon request

Working for a European company has been a real eye opener in this regard. I get about 15 days a year of “Family health” and “Personal Time” that have been a real life saver with my wife's illness.

Plus the company outfits all its engineers with laptop computers, so that they can get out of bed, dial in and check in with Europe, and then deal with traffic after rush hour making for a lot less stress. This gets several more question and answer type e-mails done in a day, without a 5:00 am commute to the office to get connected to Europe.

Additionally, providing all the engineers with phones and hands-free carkits is a great ROI for the company. With so much of the company in Europe, the morning commute is a great way to talk over what needs to be done for the day, plus you get to try out your product in real life.

The phone is handy on the way home for touching base with the house and seeing if anything is needed as well. (Brief personal calls are tolerated)

It looks like we are almost over the hurdles with my wife, and could not have done it without these type of benefits.


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