A Utah school district is warning teachers they can’t use sick time for a mental health break

Washington County School District says sick time should only be used for “qualified” illnesses. But it acknowledges the tone of its email could have been better.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Washington County School District offices in St. George are shown on Feb. 22, 2023. The district says teachers should not use sick time for a break from classroom stress.

The email was stern: You are not allowed to use your sick time for a “mental health day” when you want a break from the stress of the job. And any staff member suspected of violating that rule may be questioned and asked for proof of a “qualified” illness.

That’s the message teachers and other employees in Washington County School District received earlier this month.

The email was sent Feb. 15 to all staff by the administration of the southern Utah district. It has since been met by a flurry of pushback and concerns from educators who say they don’t feel that their well-being is valued.

Some say the email felt demeaning and demoralizing, after their already overwhelming experience of teaching during the pandemic for the past few years and attacks on their profession and lesson plans by lawmakers.

“The way it was presented definitely did not sit well,” said Amy Barton, president of the Washington County Education Association, the local union that represents teachers.

Lyle Cox, the executive director of human resources for the district and the author of the email, said he is sorry for how the message came across. He did not intend, he said, for it to be read as critical of those with mental health conditions.

“We support any teacher who struggles with mental health. Depression, anxiety, those are real issues,” he said. “And that email, if I could rewrite it, I certainly would. I wish I could rewrite it. But that’s not to back-step the message.”

In Washington County School District, Cox said, sick leave is funded like insurance. The district relies on people only using it when they are ill, because it can’t afford for everyone to use every sick day that they earn in a given year (or the time they might have saved up).

Lately, an increasing number of teachers are using more sick time and reporting it as a “much-needed break,” Cox said in an interview and in his email to staff. And that’s stressing the budget for the benefit, which might have to be discontinued, he said, if the district can’t pay for it.

But Barton says that jump in educators reporting they need time to catch their breath should be a sign that there is an issue that needs to be addressed with support for staff.

The association sent out an email to its members — which make up the majority of the 1,500 teachers in the district — hoping to reassure them and encourage them to both follow policy but also advocate for their needs.

“Look, sick is sick,” said Barton, who is also an elementary school teacher in the district. “And mental health is part of overall health.”

What did the email say?

The message warned that the district was worried about the trend of teachers taking “mental health” days.

“Regretfully, the ‘mental health day’ reasoning is a misconception among some employees,” Cox wrote. “Employees cannot use sick leave to get away from the stresses of work and enjoy some time off.”

Instead, he said, employees should use their personal leave for that — paid time off allocated separately from sick time that is negotiated with the teachers union.

Cox cautioned that if he feels abuse of sick leave is continuing, the district will switch to a short-term disability benefit package — which provides workers who are not working due to a disability claim with a percentage of their earnings. But employees likely would not be able to start receiving benefits until after 10 days off, Cox said.

He urged staff to avoid that outcome.

“When we question sick leave use we will require the employee to provide a health care provider certification,” he said. “We ask you to help us by reporting sick leave abuse and avoiding the temptation to use it for anything other than qualified health care needs.”

What is the district’s policy?

The rules in Washington County School District, under Policy 1332, say that employees can take up to four calendar days per month of sick leave, or 10 days in a year, without providing a doctor’s note for the absence and that their supervisor can accept “self-certification” of an illness in those cases.

The issue of abuse came up, said Steve Dunham, the spokesperson for Washington County School District, when an employee used sick time as vacation days to take a cruise. Others have also been using it, he said, to tack on an extra day to a holiday week, to go shopping or to a spa and calling it a “mental health break.”

“That’s the crux of the problem,” Dunham said. “We can’t do that.”

Cox said such abuse has led to “HR action” against some employees. But the district recognizes employees have mental health needs, he said, noting it offers free, private counseling, including to those who are part-time staff. The program started earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic and last year, the district calculated it provided 908 therapy sessions for staff.

(Chris Caldwell | The Spectrum via AP) Mrs. Sparks, a teacher at Arrowhead Elementary, welcomes students on the first day back in class for Washington County School District in Santa Clara, Utah, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.

Barton was recently off for six days with RSV and bronchitis; knowing that passed the four-day limit, she did get a doctor’s note. But she also noted that the communication from the doctor validated why she was off, but didn’t list the specific condition. To her, that’s important.

“A principal can’t ask an employee or teacher, what was wrong with you,” she told The Tribune. In her email, she emphasized teachers taking a day off “do not have to specify that is for ‘mental’ health.”

While Barton said she understands the financial pressures and that the district budgets for substitutes based on the average amount of sick time used in previous years, she found the email “disheartening.” She doesn’t want employees to feel scared to use their time when needed.

What are the rules for sick leave in Utah?

Utah does not have a statewide policy for sick leave. Other nearby states, including California and Arizona, protect mental health as a reason to take a sick day.

That’s been the trend nationwide, said Beca Mark, a board member for the Salt Lake Chapter of the Society of Human Resource Management. More companies are trying to better embrace mental health and support employees taking time off to address stress, she said. It helps with morale and productivity.

Even students in Utah are allowed to take a mental health day. That’s why she was so surprised to see the email from Washington County School District.

“I can’t believe the approach with this message,” she said. “There is no school district unless the employees are taken care of.”

Mark previously worked in HR for Challenger Schools, which has locations in Utah, and she now runs Megastar HR, a Sandy-based consulting and outsourcing firm. She said she has seen teacher burnout and points to that as contributing to the educator shortage in the state.

(Chris Caldwell | The Spectrum and Daily News) Faculty members at Snow Canyon High School distribute masks to students on the first day of class in Washington County School District Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.

A RAND survey from June 2021 also found teachers were three times more likely to report symptoms of depression than other adults. It called teaching the most stressful profession.

Rather than have to deal with turnover, which can be costly, investing in mental health and supporting staff has a higher return on investment, Mark said. She estimates for every dollar a company invests in its employees’ mental health, it sees a $4 return, through staff retention and even some insurance costs.

One school district in Utah has taken an approach that she says works well. Instead of dividing time into different categories — like sick or vacation — Park City School District has combined them into one paid time off category. That way, an employee can take a day for whatever they need, no questions.

“When employers treat you better, people stay and it pays,” she said. “It’s simple.”