When stress gets the best of you, don't think twice about taking a personal day. Learn how to take a successful mental health day that leaves your brain actually feeling better.

By Rachael Schultz and Elizabeth Bacharach
Updated November 17, 2020
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Just because you’re not coughing up phlegm or in bed with a fever doesn't mean you shouldn’t take a day off. No, that doesn't mean you should play hooky, but if your brain feels foggy you're sick with stress, taking a personal day is totally justifiable. In fact, it's essential for your 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," she says. "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."

One way to do this? Taking a mental health day when necessary. And while you might not have physical symptoms akin to, say, the flu, your body and brain will often tell you in other ways — think: stress, anxiety, maybe even depression — that they need a break. The only problem? More often than not, these signs are easily ignored — that is, at least until a full-out sickness occurs, adds Caprino.

Instead of waiting for a cacophony of coughing, congestion, or total burnout to call out of work, consider taking a mental health day to give your brain a break. Ahead, everything you need to know about mental health days, including when you should take one and what to do during your personal time off.

When to Take a Mental Health Day

Save your mental health day for when the strain of building stress from work (and, TBH, life) is really beginning to show. When you haven't been able to concentrate, think clearly, or manage your emotions effectively (i.e. biting your partner's head off for leaving the toilet seat up), it's probably time to use that free pass, says Caprino.

The opposite is true as well: "Feelings of extreme apathy — i.e. you just don't care — or extreme anxiety about nothing specific 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 the office. "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 personal day," says Caprino. Choose a time where your absence won't be disastrous to your team. (Related: Why It's Important to Schedule More Downtime for Your Brain)

What to Tell Your Boss Before a Mental Health Day 

Each expert ascribes to a different school of thought. "Needing a day because you're physically and mentally off is valid, and you shouldn't have to lie or fake it," says Caprino. "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 a mental health day off, 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's still not socially acceptable to announce that is what you are doing," he states. If you know your boss won't understand, you might be inclined to fake an illness. But lies lead to complicated webs, especially at work. Instead, send an email explaining that you're taking a day for "personal reasons," which is typically an acceptable practice in most American workplaces, explains Smith. 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, warns Smith.

How a Mental Health Day Can Help

Taking a mental health day lets you recharge, resets your perspective, and allows your body and mind to rest. However, it's important that you look at a mental health day off from work 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 you're worn out, you can lose your patience and perspective, which can lead to poor performance and poor communication — nothing your boss rates high on the list of employee attributes, says Caprino.

How You Should Spend Your Mental Health Day

As much as you may want to, try not to spend your mental health day vegging out and catching up on all the shows you never have time to watch from working such long hours. "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, such as spending time with a loved one (socially-distanced and while wearing masks, of course), squeezing in an outdoor workout, and even scoring some sleep if you've been skimping lately. Both experts agree that you should avoid unhealthy activities that will deplete your mind and body further, including isolating yourself further or drinking all day (no matter how relaxing a 5 p.m. glass of wine might seem).

When a Mental Health Day Might Not Be Enough 

"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. (Related: What Is High-Functioning Anxiety?)

The challenges that seemed too beleaguering yesterday should feel easier to deal with, adds Caprino. But if you don't feel any change despite putting your mental health day to good use, it might be a sign of a bigger problem. And the same is true 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, says Caprino. 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's a real medical condition and should be taken seriously.