Mark Johnson first encountered the concept of an unscheduled, company-approved day off for wellbeing when he lived in London more than 10 years ago. Known as a "duvet day" in the UK, it sounded like a good idea to Johnson, one he would have appreciated as a busy recruitment consultant.
But it was offered by a competitor’s company and wasn’t an option for him. So when he founded Edwin George Merchant and Partners (EGM), a recruitment and HR consultancy in Adelaide in 2016, Johnson made “doona days” part of his organisation’s culture. Employees are encouraged to take one doona day per quarter.
A doona day is time off for wellbeing or mental health that doesn't require prior notice. The concept has been around in Britain since at least 1997. But in Australia, doona days are a more recent development.
Sometimes we just need a day off, so instead of calling in and telling fibs to get some headspace, our employees can simply call out 'I need a doona day'
Carman's Kitchen, the muesli company, offers two doona days per year, and staff say it is a welcome perk. It also contributed to Carman's being named, Most outstanding practice – employee wellbeing, in the AFR Boss Best Places to Work awards for 2021.
Other Australian companies have added doona days to their wellbeing programme. HSBC Australia ran a 12-month trial in 2016 – 1,400 out of 1,800 employees across Australia took a doona day, and the trial was declared a success. Following the trial, "wellness days" are now part of the HSBC employee offering – one per year, increasing to three per year after five years of service.
In July last year, Unilever gave all of its Australian and New Zealand staff a Friday off as a reward for persevering through the challenges of Covid-19, calling it a doona day. Employees could spend it doing anything they liked – but they were encouraged to use the long weekend to rejuvenate.
"Doona days are a vehicle that encourages employees to take personal accountability for their wellbeing," says Lainie Tayler, who heads HR at Carman's. "They also help to create a culture of honesty and trust. Sometimes we just need a day off, so instead of calling in and telling fibs to get some headspace, our employees can simply call out 'I need a doona day'. We hope this creates open and honest dialogue and builds trust."
Johnson shares this view. “It’s about putting your hand up and saying, ‘I just can’t come in today’, rather than pretending we are invincible. A doona day is not for something like moving house, it’s for mental health. When you are close to running on empty, you use it to recharge.”
The Australian workforce is calling out for more mental health support – a report from Deloitte found one in three Australian professionals felt fatigued or stressed by work every week. An Allianz Australia study of more than 1,500 Australian workers found 80 per cent wanted more resources and initiatives to address mental health in the workplace. More than a third wanted additional paid leave including mental health leave, and a third wanted their employers to introduce workplace wellbeing programmes.
Openly talking about how organisations can better support the whole person at work is a great start
So why aren’t more Australian companies offering doona days?
"There is still a lot of stigma around mental health," says Madelyn Geldenhuys, associate professor of organisational psychology at the Australian College of Applied Psychology. "If someone asks for a doona day or expresses their mental health struggles, they may have their ability to function cognitively or emotionally thrown into question."
Geldenhuys believes no-questions-asked leave days “can help spark conversations”. “It also sends a strong message… that employees facing mental health challenges will not be judged or discriminated against.”
Tayler is also an advocate for open dialogue: “Covid-19 has provided an opportunity for us to work more flexibly, however, it can be hard for employees to ensure they have the right boundaries in place to achieve balance. Openly talking about how organisations can better support the whole person at work is a great start.”
But the occasional day off is not an adequate Band-Aid for a general culture of overwork. Geldenhuys says they should be used “in combination with other proactive strategies… such as managers regularly checking in with staff regarding their workloads and general wellbeing”.
“In the long-term, we should all ideally aim to choose a workplace that protects and values our mental health.” – Guardian