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Taking a Mental Health Day Off Work: Is it Enough?

Taking a Mental Health Day Off Work: Is it Enough?

Need a day off work to deal with stress? Feeling drained and in need of a recharge? Everyone needs a “mental health day” once in a while. But exactly what is a mental health day? Is a mental health day a sick day? And is one day enough?

While these short breaks are not a cure for every problem at work, taking a mental health day can make a difference in your quality of life and ability to stay focused, making it a win-win for both workers and employers.

What is a mental health day?

Taking a mental health day means taking a break from usual responsibilities and routines, such as school or work, to spend time doing things that strengthen your mental health. And, despite its name, it may not be exactly one day long. You might take several days off, or you may only have time for a few hours to yourself.

The length of time you need for mental health days at work will depend on many things, including your stress level, the nature and cause of your stress, the urgency of your responsibilities, the empathy of your employer, and other factors.

When to take a mental health day

How do you know when it’s time to take time off work for mental health? Here are a few signs you may need one.

You experience signs of burnout

If you’re dealing with physical or mental exhaustion, decreased motivation, negative attitudes about yourself and others, or struggling to perform at your usual level, you may be facing burnout. While taking a mental health break from work can’t cure burnout, it can help prevent it from affecting your personal and professional life if you recognize the signs early enough.

Feeling stressed

High stress levels are another sign it might be time to consider a mental health sick day. If you’re having trouble sleeping, tense muscles, headaches, fatigue, frequent illnesses, or mood or appetite changes, stress may be taking a toll. A mental health day at work can’t fix ongoing or chronic stress, but it can provide a much-needed break so you can return to work re-energized.

Benefits of mental health days

Why are mental health days important? Most of us intuitively realize that stepping away from stress now and then is beneficial. A 2017 research review of workplace stress found that taking time off work was among the most effective strategies for combating stress. Even short breaks from work can boost focus, engagement, and overall well-being. Other potential benefits of mental health days include: 

  • Less burnout
  • Improved productivity
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Better morale and outlook
  • Feeling more connected and less isolated
  • Better physical health

How to take a mental health day off work

Unless your workplace outlines mental health days in its PTO policy, you may be wondering how to call out for a mental health day and whether your employer will honor a mental health day off work. If your employer is understanding about mental health, this may be as easy as having an honest conversation about your needs. Hopefully, your employer will see that it’s in their best interest to allow you to care for your mental well-being.

If your manager is less supportive of mental health breaks from work, here are some strategies to try.

  1. Plan your mental health day off work for a time you already have PTO scheduled. If you have an upcoming holiday or vacation day, plan to spend it caring for your mental health, rather than catching up on other responsibilities.
  2. Use PTO or sick time. This is time that you’re entitled to use, and you can decide to prioritize it for your mental health if you wish.
  3. Take a few hours. It may be easier to take a few hours off than requesting an entire day. Plus, if you have a flexible work schedule, you may be able to move work around so you have free hours at a time when you need to take care of your emotional health.
  4. Practice self-care. Even if you can’t take time off work for mental health, there are still things you can do to take care of yourself in your daily life, such as sleeping and eating well, exercising, talking with trusted friends, and seeking mental health care when needed.

But what if you need more than a single mental health day off work? Maybe you’re dealing with a mental health condition or experiencing the ongoing exhaustion of burnout. In this case, you may need to talk to a mental health professional for guidance or ask your manager about taking a longer leave. Mental health days off work are powerful ways to recharge, but they have limitations. People also need access to high-quality mental health care and manager support.

Another common question: Do mental health days count as sick days? Typically, these are drawn from sick days or personal days. Check your employee handbook for policies about paid sick leave. Most people can take a sick day without explaining the details of why, and there are legal protections against discrimination in some cases.

What to do on a mental health day

There are lots of options to consider when taking a mental health day. Different strategies work for different people, so find one that’s right for you. For example, you could take a walk or bike ride, do light gardening, go bird watching, gather friends to play an outdoor sport, or find another outdoor activity you love. Some towns and cities have dedicated walking trails. You may have access to a local park or nature preserve. The great outdoors offers up relaxing sights, smells, sounds, and textures, and also invites us to exercise—a powerful antidote to stress.

You don’t have to leave the house to enjoy a mental health break from work. Some people prefer doing an indoor hobby, spending time with loved ones, playing with pets, reading, sleeping, practicing yoga, or listening to a favorite podcast on their mental health day off work.

If your brain needs stimulation, consider a creative outlet. Crafts, art, writing, cooking, planning a fun trip, scrapbooking, playing an instrument, singing, doing a crossword puzzle—all of these things can engage the playful, problem-solving parts of our brains in invigorating ways. As long as it is a creative endeavor that brings you joy, it’s fair game for a mental health day off.

It may also be helpful to set aside time for reflection. In the midst of our busy lives, we sometimes forget to practice gratitude and self-compassion, or simply soak in the present moment. This type of mental recharge can help us see our lives more clearly and appreciate what we have.

How managers can encourage taking time off for mental health

Since mental health affects productivity, retention, and job satisfaction, employers benefit when they allow team members to take a mental health day. Additionally, employees have made clear that they want mental health days off work so they can recharge. Here are a few ways managers and company leaders can encourage taking time off work for mental health.

Set a healthy model – Take mental health days at work for yourself, and be open about doing so. And don’t forget to model unplugging from work. If you take a mental health day off but spend it responding to co-workers’ emails, your employees may conclude that “mental health days” aren’t actually about caring for their personal needs.

Take steps to reduce stigma – Talk openly about your mental health and listen with empathy when employees share their challenges. When you actively combat mental health stigma, people are more likely to reach out for support when they need it. 

Encourage employees to use their PTO – You can offer reminders during performance reviews, annual goal-setting, or when your team is setting deadlines for major projects. As you encourage PTO, make sure you address employees’ workload. Some people may feel that if they take time off for mental health or other needs, no one will pick up the slack on their team. Find out what team members need in order to feel that their work is “covered” if they’re gone and work on building that support network. Does the team need to coordinate time off to keep a minimum number of employees on duty at all times? Can aggressive deadlines be adjusted? 

Adjust policies when possible – Consider relaxing rules around when and how employees use their PTO. Some companies dedicate a specific amount of PTO for illness, vacation, or “personal days.” It may make sense to leave it up to employees how to use their PTO. When they don’t feel that the company is looking over their shoulder, they may be more likely to take mental health days when they really need it.

Recognize the limitations of mental health days at work

It would be wonderful if taking a mental health day could magically solve all workplace woes. But realistically, they’re just one strategy against burnout and overwhelm. Here’s what mental health days can’t do:

  1. Fix workplace problems. If someone is stressed because of a toxic workplace environment, taking a mental health break from work won’t fix the root problem. This requires having an employer take steps to create a more positive work environment.
  2. Reduce workloads. Employees who feel overworked may find that taking a mental health break from work only increases the backlog of tasks to catch up on when they return. Setting realistic expectations will go further in this scenario than encouraging occasional mental health days off.
  3. Combat chronic stress. One mental health sick day cannot undo months of stress. If workers seem disengaged or burned out, leadership needs to assess what can be done to ease stress in the long term.
  4. Address mental illness. If an employee has a mental health condition, they may require evaluation and treatment by a licensed mental health professional. Offering a comprehensive mental health benefit is the best way to support these needs.
  5. Cure burnout. Burnout can’t be solved by taking one or two mental health days off work. As an organizational issue, employers need to recognize the causes of burnout and make meaningful changes to better support their employees.

Making mental health a workplace priority

Mental health days off work are an important part of a well-rounded strategy to support workforce mental health. Employers can strive to make mental health days a regular, accepted part of company culture. And when employees need more than a mental health break from work, employers can offer mental health benefits, manager training, and other types of support. Team members can do their part by communicating with their managers and asking for the support they need. When everyone prioritizes mental health, both workers and businesses can thrive.

Need more than a mental health day?

You can start receiving mental health support today if your employer offers Lyra.

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About the reviewer
Sarah Grausz

Sarah is an organizational development program specialist on the workforce transformation team at Lyra Health. Sarah has a master's degree in organization development from American University and specializes in coaching and training leaders to build equitable, redeeming workplaces. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, loves spending time with her large extended family and baking with her toddler.

Clinically reviewed by
Sarah Grausz
By The Lyra Team
16 of May 2023 - 9 min read
Mental health at work
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