If you had the flu or COVID-19 symptoms, you probably wouldn’t think twice about calling in to work sick. But what about taking a day off to tend to your mental health?
A 2020 report from Aetna, a healthcare company, found that stigma still surrounds mental health in the workplace, and many employees fear that mental health maintenance isn’t considered a legitimate reason for taking a sick day. But experts say that occasionally taking days off to focus on your psychological and emotional health is paramount to your overall well-being and can help prevent burnout.
“Taking mental health days is definitely a big-time yes!” says Los Angeles-based therapist Amanda Stemen, M.S., L.C.S.W., who is the owner of Fundamental Growth. “Our mental and physical health are so inextricably linked that it’s no different than taking a ‘physical health’ day, a.k.a. sick day.”
One benefit of taking mental health days, Steman says, includes preventing further mental and physical health issues. Also, these breaks can ultimately lead to higher levels of creativity, clarity, and concentration, which can translate to greater productivity at work and better relationships with colleagues, she points out.
Here’s what else you need to know about the benefits of mental health days, as well as therapist-approved tips for how to get the most out of restorative time away from work.
Signs you should take a mental health day
The need for mental health days is especially relevant in today’s “grind culture,” says Lesley Smith, L.C.S.W., in Portland, Oregon. The pressure to be “on” and “available” at all times is compounded by the ongoing global pandemic, Smith says, which comes with an added emotional toll, and, for some, the expectation to take on even more work. Amid the shift to remote work, those who are now working from home are logging more hours than when they worked in an office.
Some signs that you might need a mental health day, according to Smith, include: feeling exhausted, having difficulty concentrating, anxiety, dread, sadness, or being completely overwhelmed.
Another telltale sign that you need a break is that you’re struggling to complete tasks that are otherwise simple for you, Steman says.
Plan Your Mental Health Day in Advance
A good strategy for taking a mental health day is to plan it in advance, and don’t wait until you feel like you really need it, says Newport Beach, California-based therapist Kaylin Zabienski, L.M.F.T. “At that point, it might be too late to function as a preventative measure and will be more of a reaction and response to burnout,” she says.
Plus, when you plan your mental health day in advance, it gives you the opportunity to prepare, just as you might with a vacation day, Zabienski says. You make sure your tasks are complete or covered by someone else and you turn on your “out of office” reply so coworkers or clients know not to reach out. It also gives you the opportunity to set up appointments, whether that’s a counseling appointment, massage, or a doctor’s appointment.
While some organizations now include mental health days in employee benefits, you may need to use PTO, a sick day, or even unpaid time off, Zabienski says.
Ultimately, mental health days can be a part of a bigger self-care plan.
How to spend a mental health day
It’s important to note that you don’t need to have a mental health illness to need a “mental health day,” says Dr. Monica Vermani, L.C.P., a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of A Deeper Wellness.
“When work stressors or life events are emotionally difficult to navigate, a mental health day can help regain a sense of control,” she says.
Vermani suggests spending your mental health day doing anything and everything that encourages and supports self-care and compassion for your tired body and mind.
“Sleep, rest, engage in an interest or hobby to enhance your connection to the small joyful moments in life,” she says. “Reset healthy habits.”
Vermani suggests attending to self-care appointments, like massages or therapy sessions. You can also connect with nature, go for a walk, exercise, breathe, journal a gratitude log, or read. The goal here, she says, is to rest and rejuvenate.
It can also be beneficial to unplug from social media and spend time with actual people, says therapist Keischa Pruden, L.C.M.H.C.S., owner of Pruden Counseling Concepts.
“While social media is an enjoyable outlet to keep up with friends and loved ones and make new connections, it can also become a comparison trap, leading to people striving to have what others have or achieve what they see other people achieving,” Pruden says. “This can lead to depression, anxiety, and other interpersonal issues.”
What to do if you’re feeling workplace burnout
If you’re feeling continuous workplace burnout, Stemen recommends exploring this with a therapist to identify the causes and explore solutions and ways in which to cope or change.
Burnout can be an indication of having difficulty setting boundaries or engaging in other regular self-care practices. However, the work environment can cause burnout, too.
Sometimes people need to take a medical leave of absence to recover fully from burnout, Stemen explains. Discuss this with a licensed therapist or medical professional.
Of course, before you reach the point of burnout, learning some healthy coping skills and setting aside time to take care of your mental health much like you do your physical health are absolutely crucial.