A mental health day is exactly what it sounds like: a day to rest, recharge, and prioritize your mental health. While taking one can feel scary—especially when companies are trying to do more with less—good mental health is vital to being productive and doing high-impact work. Here, we’ll run you through when and why you might want to take a mental health day, as well as how to approach the subject in the workplace.
Think about the last time you felt overwhelmed and maxed out at work. What did it feel like? Did you struggle to focus? Did you find yourself procrastinating on tasks? Did the anxiety seep into your time outside of work?
Now, think about how you addressed those feelings. Did you just press on, despite not feeling or performing at your best? If that’s your reaction to work stress, you’re in good company: research has found that 40% of all workers think burnout is an inevitable part of success.
Often, we feel pressured to push through work anxiety out of concern for our career growth, especially when companies are trying to do more with less. But without prioritizing your mental health, you can’t do great work. In fact, the “push through” mentality can negatively impact businesses by leading to low team morale, miscommunication, and ultimately more mistakes.
So how can you prioritize your mental health at work while keeping a focus on your work performance? One way is by taking regular mental health days.
As the name suggests, a mental health day is a day you take off from work specifically to relax and recharge. The purpose of a mental health day is to give you time to take a break and prioritize your well-being—which is especially important in times of high stress and anxiety.
The simple answer is because so many of us are currently—and have been consistently—struggling with work-related mental health conditions like burnout and overwork. Faced with mounting notifications, the battle to balance our work and home lives, and rapidly changing macroeconomic conditions, workers are struggling—almost one in four workers experience burnout four or more times per year, and 42% say they’ve suffered imposter syndrome and burnout simultaneously. The result is a less engaged workforce more prone to make mistakes.
While mental health days certainly aren’t a fix for the underlying conditions impacting mental health at work, they can give workers the needed time to destress, reset, and prioritize themselves. Some companies have dedicated resources for mental health days, but if yours doesn’t, that’s okay—you can often use a sick day in place of a mental health day if needed.
Let’s dig into when and why you might take a mental health day, as well as how to approach the subject with your manager.
The truth is, there’s no hard-and-fast rule around when you should take a day off for your mental health. In general, if you’re experiencing increased levels of stress or work anxiety that are impacting your ability to function or concentrate at work, you might want to check in on your mental health—and consider taking a day off.
So, what’s the simple answer to when you should take a mental health day? When you need one. Here are a few common signs you might need to take a day off to prioritize your mental health:
Lack of motivation at work
Lowered productivity with no outside cause
Difficulty concentrating and staying focused
Physical symptoms, like headaches or exhaustion
Mood changes, including increased frustration and irritability
Increased negative thoughts about work or your employer
Frustration or annoyance directed at coworkers
When you’re struggling with a physical illness, taking a day off work feels like a no-brainer—after all, it’s not easy to accomplish goals and succeed in your role when your head is pounding or you’re running a fever. While it doesn’t always feel like it, taking a mental health day is the same thing. Mental health days give you time to focus on yourself and recharge, so you can ultimately be a more productive team member and accomplish great, high-impact work.
Mental health days can help you:
Take a break to pause, rest, and re-energize
Come back to work with more energy and lowered anxiety
Improve your productivity and creativity at work
Reset your perspective and refocus
Reflect on what’s causing stress and come up with solutions
Reduce stress and burnout, and combat the negative impact of work stress, like missed deadlines and lower engagement levels
Now that you know when and why you should take a mental health day, it’s time to focus on an aspect of taking one that can be difficult to broach: how to take a day off for mental health—specifically, how to approach your manager about the subject.
If you’re concerned about bringing up the topic of mental health at work, you’re not alone. The stigma around mental health in the workplace can lead to concerns that speaking openly about struggles will lead to retaliation at work, whether consciously or unconsciously. And it’s natural to worry that such a conversation could impact your work assignments or reflect poorly on your ability to perform at work—especially when companies are prioritizing high-impact work and doing more with less.
While there have been positive strides made around normalizing the subject, if you’re not comfortable disclosing your mental health struggles at work, you don’t have to. Let’s break down how to take a mental health day in a way that’s most comfortable for you.
While some companies have policies that allow for specific time off for mental health days, others don’t have dedicated resources, meaning you’ll likely follow the same procedures for taking a sick day or a one-off day of PTO.
When speaking with your manager, the main thing to remember is that you’re in control—you aren’t obligated to tell your manager why you’re taking a day off. If you do feel comfortable disclosing your need for a mental health day, doing so can help minimize the stigma around mental health at work and create a transparent, open culture. It can also give you and your manager the opportunity to discuss ways to prioritize your mental health at work, lessening the chance of long-term impacts like burnout.
No matter what you decide, here are a few tips on how to approach your manager.
If you aren’t comfortable disclosing your need for a mental health day, you don’t have to—simply use the same language you would when taking a sick day or tell your employer you need to take off for a personal reason.
If you are comfortable disclosing your need for a mental health day, speak openly with your manager about why you need one—and how you can work together to get to a better place when you return. Tips to effectively communicate this include:
Frame your conversation around the negative impact of poor mental health on your work and the workplace—like the potential for lowered productivity or missed deadlines—and your desire to find a solution for yourself and the company.
Speak to the research-backed benefits of taking a mental health day, working to build a shared understanding of how prioritizing mental health will benefit workers and the organization.
Check back after your mental health day to find mutually beneficial solutions to prioritize mental health beyond one-off mental health days, like setting work boundaries and working toward realistic goals.
Once you’ve cleared your day off with your workplace, it’s time to take it. Your mental health day is yours—your only goal is to rest, recharge, and destress—so how you spend it will depend on what that looks like for you. Here are a few ideas around how you might want to spend your mental health day, depending on how you like to relax and relieve stress:
Catch up on some much-needed sleep.
Unplug—take a break from social media, email, and other forms of technology that cause stress.
Indulge in self-care activities, like getting a massage, taking a bath, or reading.
Spend time with friends, family, and loved ones.
Spend time outside, like taking a long walk, going on a hike, or riding a bike.
Participate in stress-reducing activities, such as deep breathing, meditation, taking a yoga class, or journaling.
Listen to a podcast or curl up on the couch and watch a movie.
Cook a healthy meal, go to a restaurant you love, or grab coffee with a friend.
Explore your neighborhood and try out a new shop or café.
Burn a candle, start an art project, or de-clutter your house.
Do nothing—spend the day in bed or without an agenda.
While taking a mental health day is helpful if you’ve been feeling extra stressed or struggling to focus, they’re ultimately not a long-term solution for poor mental health at work. A single day off won’t solve larger, underlying workplace stressors, such as unclear expectations, lack of managerial support, unrealistic expectations, and a demanding workload.
If you still feel overly stressed or overwhelmed after returning from your mental health day, it may be a sign that there are deeper issues that need addressing. Here’s what to do if one day off to focus on your mental health isn’t enough.
If you’re an individual contributor, focus on strategies that can help reduce work anxiety, including:
Speaking to your manager about your workload and potential ways to reallocate resources.
Practicing good time management techniques.
Setting clear work boundaries, like adhering to “on” and “off” hours or learning to say no at work.
Requesting company resources, such as coaching or professional development courses.
Delegating work when possible.
Reaching out to a health care professional if your symptoms become unmanageable.
If you’re a manager or an executive, focus on strategies that create a transparent culture and help employees feel comfortable speaking about and prioritizing their mental health, such as:
Leading by example and modeling good work behaviors like adhering to work boundaries and taking time off.
Creating a company culture that supports mental health through the creation of employee resource groups (ERGs) and offering mental health care.
Acknowledging that demographic groups experience different mental health challenges and providing support through sensitivity training and investing in diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
Acting as an ally and breaking down the stigma around mental health at work by facilitating open conversations and speaking about your own mental health, if you feel comfortable.
Leading with empathy by regularly checking in with employees about their mental health and asking how to better support and provide solutions.
Prioritizing your mental health in the workplace isn’t easy—but it is important. Workers who allow themselves to set boundaries and focus on their well-being are ultimately able to create more high-impact work. If you’re struggling with your mental health in the workplace, you're not alone—but there is help and hope. Taking a mental health day is the first step in focusing on your mental health needs in the office.
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