Taking sick days for physical health is commonplace, but the practice of taking time off work to tend to your mental health is more of a gray area.
Many companies have policies for mental health or personal days, but it can still be hard to take time off when you simply need a mental break. You may feel guilty or hesitant to use one of your precious PTO days and push yourself to show up anyway.
Yet, when you’re feeling too stressed, you and your work suffer, potentially leading to issues that can hurt your performance and co-workers. Knowing when to take a mental health day for yourself is crucial to maintaining your overall health and well-being, both in and outside the workplace.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to take a mental health day.
When to take one
“If you feel overwhelmed, stressed, have trouble focusing or concentrating on work or at home, or are more irritable, then you may want to consider taking a mental health day. If you think about your life as a plate with sections for work, family, life, and things you like to do, and the plate is overflowing in all areas but the things you like to do, it is time for you to take a break and participate in self-care,” Dr. Ashley Hampton, a licensed psychologist and systems strategist, tells Healthline.
It can be all too easy to convince yourself that poor mental health isn’t a good enough reason to take time off work. If you’re physically able to work, why not go in and get paid?
But remember that your mental health is just as important to your overall well-being as your physical health. Just like any bout of illness or bodily distress, your mind needs time to rest and recover.
We aren’t talking about the usual Sunday scaries, or just feeling bored or not excited to go into the office. If you wake up and feel especially stressed, down, or anxious — at a level that impairs your functioning — it’s time to consider taking the day off.
Of course, sometimes you just feel unexplainably “off.” It’s OK to take the day to yourself then, too. Use your personal judgement and listen to your mind and body. Everyone needs a mental health day from time to time.
What to say to your boss
Unfortunately, the debate over mental health days is still prevalent in many companies. Meaning, what you say to your boss is important.
“In terms of mental health days at work, I highly encourage using sick time to take care of mental health,” Hampton says.
“How to go about taking a mental health day can be tricky. I encourage everyone to determine what specific company policy is before saying anything about mental health. Not all company policies consider mental health a viable reason to take a sick day. In this case, it would be preferable to simply ask for sick time in a way that is consistent with company culture,” she says.
It may be frustrating if you’re unable to directly explain why you need time off, but as long as you’re honest in that you’re sick, not specifying it’s for your mental health is fine.
When you’re requesting time off, it’s OK to be brief. You don’t need to go into detail about why you’re taking a sick day or mental health day (unless you want to), but don’t feel like you need to justify or explain it to anyone.
Note: There are some reasons why a person wouldn’t have to tell their employer why they’re taking a day off. This is the case if the reason is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Click here to learn more.
How to spend your mental health day
Just like you’d treat any sick day, do things that make you feel better.
“On your mental health day, focus completely on yourself. It isn’t a day to catch up on laundry or email or cleaning your home or even running errands. Design your mental health day completely for you and about you,” Hampton says.
“If you enjoy having a massage, reading a book, watching a movie, then do those things. If you are going to take a day off work, make every minute count. The goal is to reduce any negative emotions, like stress and overwhelm,” she adds.
Of course, if doing laundry or cleaning is therapeutic for you — either because of the actual chore itself or the feeling of accomplishing a task — then knock yourself out! Just make sure whatever you’re doing makes you feel more at ease and relaxed. For some people, that could mean doing a puzzle. For others, it could mean scrubbing the bathtub.
“Give your brain a break, and do activities that you enjoy. Completing fun activities will help you relax and remind you what it feels like to take care of yourself and not everyone else all the time,” Hampton says.
Mental health days can also be a great time to practice self-care, whether that means doing a 12-step skin care routine or going for a jog in your favorite park. It may also mean sitting in bed all day watching Netflix and eating cereal. Self-care looks different for everyone.
Spend your mental health day doing things you know are beneficial to your mental and physical health. You don’t have to learn how to knit or get a facial if you aren’t sure whether it will make you feel better. Try making a list of activities that bring you joy and lift your spirits. Consult it if you need some inspiration.
If you already see a therapist and you feel like you’d benefit from an extra session during your mental health day, call them and ask if they have a slot available for an in-person or virtual session.
There are also free online counseling services, such as 7 Cups, which allows you to connect via text message to a trained volunteer to receive emotional support. You don’t have to go through a rough time alone.
It may feel weird at first to do things like getting a massage or sitting in the park on a day that you’d otherwise be working. But these activities can go a long way toward helping you feel better.
The important thing is to do what makes you feel good, not what you think you should be doing. Once you take your first mental health day, it’ll only be easier to take them in the future and not feel guilty about it.
The goal is not to get out of work; it’s to heal your mind so you can return feeling more relaxed, positive, and ready for a productive day. Mental health days are necessary for healthy, happy employees and a better workplace overall.
Sarah Fielding is a New York City–based writer. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Insider, Men’s Health, HuffPost, Nylon, and OZY where she covers social justice, mental health, health, travel, relationships, entertainment, fashion and food.