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Your Guilt-Free Guide to Taking a Mental Health Day

You shouldn't feel bad taking a personal day because of stress or anxiety. If you’re not coughing up mucus, in bed with a fever, or so bogged down by cramps that you can’t uncurl from a ball, you probably feel guilty calling out of work. (Even though sick days at work are notoriously abused.) But the more acceptable it becomes to admit that a lot of us suffer from depression, anxiety, and unbearable stress, the more acceptable it becomes to justify mental health days.

In fact, it’s not just justifiable, it's essential for our health and wellbeing, says Kathy Caprino, a women’s career coach and work-life expert. “I believe that part of the widespread malaise of corporate America is that so many people feel and believe they don’t have any control over their lives and time, and they’re exhausted to the point of non-functioning. To live a healthy, productive life, it’s critical to take control and manage your time in and out of work in an empowered way.” (How Much Health Information Should You Really Reveal at Work?)

And even though you don’t have physical symptoms, your body will often tell you in other ways that it needs a break—but because these signs come in the form of stress and anxiety, we too often just ignore them until full-out sickness occurs, Caprino adds.

When You Should Take a Day Off
Giving yourself a free pass because you’re stressed can open Pandora’s box—most of us are at our wit's end from work on a daily basis. Save your mental health day for when the strain is really beginning to show. When you haven’t been able to concentrate, think clearly, or manage your emotions effectively (like biting your husband’s head off for leaving the toilet seat up, say), it’s probably time to use that free pass, Caprino says. The opposite is true as well: “Feelings of extreme apathy—like you just don’t care—or extreme anxiety about nothing in particular are cues that could indicate you would be better off taking a day to reset,” says leadership and workplace communication expert Brandon Smith, who runs The Workplace Therapist.

But be conscious of what’s going on at work. “If you’re in the middle of a critical, time-sensitive project or a period where you’re absolutely needed at work, that’s obviously not the best time for you to take a day,” Caprino says. Choose a time where your absence won’t be disastrous to your team. (9 Smart Career Tips for a Bright, Successful Future.)

What to Tell Your Boss
Each expert ascribes to a different school of thought. “Needing a day because you are physically and mentally off is valid, and you shouldn’t have to lie or fake it,” Caprino says. “Call in and share openly with your boss that you’re not well enough to come in.” But present it in a way that won’t be contested or argued with—if you feel ashamed of taking the day for yourself, it will be communicated in your voice and language, she adds.

Smith, on the other hand, defers to more ambiguity. “While there may be many merits of taking a mental health day, it is still not socially accepted to announce that is what you are doing,” he states. And he has a point. In fact, nearly seven in 10 bosses believe stress, anxiety, or depression are not valid excuses for taking time off work (even though 25 percent have suffered from mental illness themselves!), reports a recent survey carried out by British healthcare company AXA PPP.

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If you know your boss won’t understand, your go-to is probably faking an illness, but lies lead to complicated webs, especially at work. Instead, email that you’re taking a day for “personal reasons,” which is typically an acceptable practice in most American workplaces, Smith adds. (See 8 Email Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making.) However, be aware that if you use this reason more than three times in a year, your boss may ask for more specifics or start to view you as unreliable, Smith warns.

How It Can Help
Taking a mental health day lets you recharge, resets your perspective, and allows your body and mind to rest. However, the most important way you should look at a day out of the office is as a risk management strategy for your career and life, says Smith. “If you don’t attend to your stress, anxiety, or depression, it can affect your work performance and composure in the workplace—which could result in a layoff—and even cause physical ailments, which can obviously damage your career and life,” he adds.

When we’re worn out, we can lose our patience and perspective, which can lead to poor performance and poor communication—nothing your boss rates high on the list of employee attributes, Caprino adds. (Add it to the list of 10 Ways to Be Happier at Work Without Changing Jobs.)

How You Should Spend Your Day
As much as you may want to, try not to spend the day vegging out and catching up on all the shows you never have time to watch from working such long hours. (Why not? Because this is Your Brain On: Binge Watching TV.) “A mental health day should be designed to give your mind, body, and spirit just what it’s craving most—which is different for every person,” says Caprino. Smith recommends a combination of depression and anxiety reducing activities, like spending time with a friend or family member, laughing, squeezing in an outdoor workout, and even scoring some sleep if you’ve been skimping lately. Both experts agree you should avoid unhealthy activities that will deplete your mind and body further, including isolating yourself or drinking all day (we know, those mimosas are tempting!).

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A Sign There’s Something Else Going On
“It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect all symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, or anger to go away in just 24 hours, but after a well-used mental health day, you should feel 30 to 50 percent better,” says Smith. The challenges that seemed too beleaguering yesterday should feel easier to deal with, Caprino adds. If you don't feel any change despite putting your free day to good use, it’s probably a sign of a bigger problem. Same goes for if you find yourself getting addicted to the days off, constantly wanting to call in sick after you give yourself a mental health day. If this is the case, turn to outside help, Caprino says. A therapist or career/life coach can help you reexamine your career and life to see if there is a deeper issue at play here. But don't ignore the feeling—Burnout Should be Taken Seriously.

 

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