Workplace culture has come a long way when it comes to wellness and mental health, but despite the fact that burnout is recognized as a real medical diagnosis, it's still difficult for many people to take off work and care for themselves. And that's a shame when 40% of American workers find their jobs stressful, and more than 30% say their jobs harm their physical or emotional health.
Truthfully, it shouldn't be normal to feel worked into the ground and chronically overwhelmed. But if you do feel that way, you should take a mental health day.
Mental health days help you feel grounded and re-energized, maintain a healthy work-life perspective, manage burnout, and feel refreshed -- all keys to maintaining your overall health and your ability to engage at work in the best way, for the long-term.
October 10 is World Mental Health Day; check out these stories that can help you support your mental health:
What exactly is a mental health day?
A mental health day is simply a day off that is specifically and strategically geared toward stress relief. While one day off may not by itself cure burnout, a mental health day can definitely provide you with a much-needed (and well-deserved) break.
"By taking mental health days, you're placing equal value between your mental and emotional well-being and your physical well-being," Talkspace therapist Amy Cirbus told CNET. " It's an acquired skill to be able to determine when you need a mental health day, but well worth the effort."
Ideally, these days would be scheduled far enough in advance so that you can arrange your workload or enlist help to ensure you don't stress about what's supposed to be a stress-free day. But that's not always possible, and it's totally OK to take a spur-of-the-moment mental health day if you need to.
You may feel guilty about taking time off to tend to your mental health, because the practice isn't as common as taking a sick day for physical illness. But when you're overly stressed, you and your work suffer, which can lead to a slew of issues. If your job requires any form of manual labor, pushing through burnout can even lead to physical injuries.
Oh, and mental health days aren't just for adults. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a pediatric psychologist, told CNET that children, teens and young adults need mental health days just as much as working professionals do.
"The majority [of adults] work more than 40 hours a week, and this work-all-the-time attitude has shifted to similar expectations for teens and young adults," Capanna-Hodge says. "Academic demands have increased, and teens are sleeping less and less… Without adequate sleep, cognitive functioning declines and stress builds."
It's critical that children and teens learn how to take care of themselves with proper sleep, nutrition and stress management so by the time they reach adulthood, they've established healthy habits and boundaries, Cappana-Hodge says.
Signs you need a mental health day
Stress, anxiety and burnout manifest differently in everyone, but you should look out for some common symptoms. Signs you need to take a mental health day include:
- Sleeplessness at night
- Chronic daytime fatigue
- Over-reliance on caffeine or other stimulants
- Excessive difficulty focusing
- Downturn in productivity
- Feelings of depletion
- Mood swings, especially irritability
- Feelings of resentment toward your work, workplace or co-workers
- Blurred lines between work and home life
- Personalization of work frustrations
- Recurring headaches, colds or other physical ailments
Experiencing many of these symptoms at once, or even just one or two on a regular basis, is a good indicator that you need a mental health day, Cirbus says.
How do you tell your boss you need a mental health day?
Once you decide you need a mental health day, the next step is to actually arrange it. You may think that the easiest way to take a mental health day is to lie about being sick. While that might be the easiest tactic up front, it's only going to further perpetuate the stigma around mental health in the workplace.
Instead of fibbing, you should tell your boss exactly what you need, Cirbus says. "Mental health is just as much a sick day as a physical sick day. Communicate to your boss that you're not feeling well, and let them know you need to take off in order to take care of yourself."
Some workplaces prioritize wellness, and those workplaces will welcome the idea of taking care of your mental health, knowing you'll come back ready for work and more productive than before.
Other workplaces may not be as comfortable with the concept. Either way, you don't need to divulge all the details, but you should stand firm in the fact that in order to work at your best, you need a day to take care of yourself.
How should you spend a mental health day?
Once you secure the day off, it's important that you actually utilize this time to help yourself reset. That's going to look different for everyone, but here are a few examples of effective things you can do on your mental health day:
- Sleep in and make a big breakfast you wouldn't normally eat on a workday.
- Get a massage.
- Take a nap.
- Connect with nature on a hike, at the beach, or whatever landscape you enjoy.
- Bake some goodies to enjoy by yourself or with friends.
- Paint or draw.
- Read a book.
- Get lunch with a friend you haven't seen in a while.
- Call someone you miss.
- Complete errands you've been putting off.
You don't need to plan a full day of activities for your mental health day. In fact, less is often more. And you don't have to engage in Instagram-worthy self-care, either. Not everyone will feel refreshed after a floral bubble bath, face mask and hot-stone massage -- some people will feel their best after a hard workout, a hearty meal and an episode of their favorite TV show. Plus, trying too hard to epitomize self-care will make it feel like more of a chore.
Just do things that will make you feel relieved, refreshed and ready for the next day back at work, even if that simply means crossing non-work-related items off of your to-do list. Whatever you choose to do, Cirbus says a great rule of thumb is to stay off of social media and be mindful of your time.
"Connect in real life with yourself or great company and be as present as you can with the day," Cirbus says. "Ask yourself, what can you do that will have you feeling your best at the end of this day."
Read more: 5 life hacks for relieving anxiety
How often should you take mental health days?
There's no gold standard for the frequency of mental health days, Cirbus says. It all depends on the individual's circumstances and stress tolerance, and it can vary based on personal challenges that coincide with the intensity of your workload.
Some months, you may not feel the need for a mental health day, whereas other months you may need more than one. "On average, it can be good to schedule at least one to two mental health days a quarter," Cirbus says. "Scheduled days off create a routine of dedicated time to good self care which helps maintain stability and sustainability over time."
The same is true for children, teens and young adults, Cappana-Hodge says. If a student is more prone to stress or irritation, they would benefit from more frequent mental health days, or mental health breaks that are longer in duration. For instance, taking two days off, or positioning a mental health day on Friday so that it extends through the weekend, would benefit those who need extra time to reset.
You should make an effort to take a full mental health day if you feel like you need one, but if that doesn't feel manageable, you can help yourself reset by engaging in breaks throughout the day.
"In an ideal world, everyone should take time everyday to manage stress, so the nervous system can regulate on its own," Cappana-Hodge says. "Even as little of 10 minutes of mediation or some other quiet activity helps to regulate the nervous system, increase focus, and build calm within the brain and body."