How To Take a Mental Health Day (and What To Tell Your Boss) 

February 27, 2020

By Amanda Capritto

Workplace stress has smashed through the barrier of office walls and crept into every corner of our lives. Burnout, although classified by the World Health Organization as an “occupational phenomenon,” bares its teeth in relationships, hobbies, and social lives. 

Ask any person you know in any profession, “How do you honestly feel today?”  The answer is likely to include one — or all — of the following: tired, stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, distant, irritable, lost, depleted. 

People consider it normal to work themselves into the ground each day, hardly ever coming up for air, let alone some alone time for relaxation. “Success” has become synonymous with “busy,” but that is not so — and it’s up to each individual to push back against that mindset by taking mental health days when they need them.

What is a mental health day?

A mental health day is simply a day you take off of work to recharge, re-energize, and revitalize. Mental health days can restore your creativity and work ethic, make you feel excited about life and work once again, and, perhaps most importantly, help you stave off burnout for the long term.  

Despite the fact that burnout has gained international recognition from health agencies as a bonafide issue, many people still find it difficult to take time off of work and take care of themselves — a serious problem when one-third of Americans say their job harms their physical or emotional health and 25 percent say that their job is the number-one stressor in their life.

“It amuses me that mental health is still so elusive to us and that it continues to remain on the backburner,” Laura Rhodes-Levin, an anxiety therapist, tells Clean Plates. “ It is common knowledge that we should eat healthy and physically work out our bodies to keep ourselves fit and healthy. The same is true for mental health: It should be preemptive and preventive, not something we do when we are overcome with anxiety and/or depression or just plain burnt out.”

And you need to reserve more than just your weekend, Rhodes-Levin says: “I believe the weekend is meant to provide rest, but most often, it is filled with catching up on your personal needs that you can’t take care of during the work week — so when do we actually get to fully refill our mental tank?” 

That’s where intentionally scheduled mental health days come in.

How do I know if I need a mental health day?

Burnout, stress, and anxiety look and feel different for everyone, but in general, the following symptoms can signify the need for a mental health day:

  • A feeling of detachment from your work, especially work that you usually deeply care about
  • Feeling resentful or cynical toward your work, workplace, colleagues, or superiors
  • A loss of creativity, productivity, and focus
  • Feeling lost on your path; wondering, more than usual, if you are in the right place
  • You are constantly multi-tasking
  • You have a short fuse and get irritated easily
  • Sleeplessness or difficulty falling asleep at night
  • Racing thoughts
  • An immense feeling of overwhelm
  • Panic attacks
  • Chronic fatigue during the day
  • Over-reliance on stimulants like coffee and energy drinks
  • Lack of motivation to do anything other than what’s necessary
  • Loss of interest in hobbies outside of work
  • Caring less about your state of physical health
  • Intense and constant food cravings
  • Under-eating or over-eating
  • Recurring headaches, colds, infections, or other minor health conditions

But take it from the anxiety therapist: “I am hoping after reading this article,” Rhodes-Levin says, “That you are taking a mental health day before there are signs and symptoms — that you are refilling your mental tank while it’s still half full and not waiting for the orange emergency light to go on.”

How to talk about a mental health day

“Having to fake emergencies just doesn’t feel good inside our bodies and takes away from enjoying your mental health day,” Rhodes-Levin says. “It starts a whole line of thinking that can inhibit where you go and what you do on your mental health day because you’re afraid of who you might run into or who might see you.”

Not every workplace is sympathetic to these sorts of things, however, trust your personal relationship and speak privately with the necessary parties about what you need. Regardless, asking for a day off shouldn’t need an excuse. If your situation is less than understanding, Rhodes-Levin says, try requesting the time off without being specific. 

Some helpful langue is to simply think of it as a “personal day off.” You are not obligated to explain what you will do with it.

How to plan for and take a mental health day

Like Rhodes-Levin noted earlier, taking care of your mental health means being preemptive and preventive. Scheduling regular mental health days, such as once per month or once per quarter, allows you to rest your brain periodically and manage work stress proactively. 

  • If you have a primarily independent job, such as something in a creative field, make sure you have important tasks completed or prioritized for completion when you return.
  • If you have a job where someone depends heavily on you, such as an administrative job, inform your employer of your scheduled mental health days ahead of time. Let them know that you won’t be available for phone calls or emails on those days.
  • If you do shift work, make sure you find someone to cover your normal shift. And if you need a substitute, such as if you are a teacher, secure your sub as far in advance as possible.

What if I need a mental health day right now? If you were unaware of the signs of burnout — or perhaps you just ignored the signs — the need for a mental health day can really creep up on you. One moment you’re fine, and the next, well, you’re not. If you wake up one morning and realize you need a mental health day ASAP as in right this minute, just do it. 

Sure, it can be disconcerting to take a spur-of-the-moment day off of work. But work can always wait. Going to work is useless, anyway, when you’re operating at 1 percent productivity. So phone in and let your boss know that you won’t be coming in for personal reasons. If you are the boss or if you’re self-employed, shut down your computer, silence your email notifications, and get to relaxing. 

How to spend your mental health day

So you secured the time off: Now you should spend it in a way that helps you recharge and regenerate so you can return to work feeling better than ever. Rhodes-Levin says, “It’s funny that we need to ‘do’ something. We have become ‘human doings’ rather than ‘human beings.’”

So truly, you don’t have to do anything — the  freedom comes in having the time to engage in anything you’d like. A therapeutic day is different for everyone. 

There are some things you might want to stay away from on a mental health day, particularly computer and phone screens. Other activities, such as exercise, are totally up to you. If you feel burnt out from your usual intensive gym routine, it’s okay (and probably necessary) to rest your body on your mental health day. But if you absolutely love a good long run, go for it! The key is to choose activities that will genuinely make you feel good and happy, and spend the day entirely on your own terms.

As Rhodes-Levin puts it, “When it is all said and done and we hopefully live to a ripe old age, I imagine we will have spent plenty of time at work. Don’t wait until then to relax and enjoy your life.”