One morning in September, Sarah Billington told her manager she had to go home for the day because she was feeling sick. But she didn’t have an upset stomach like she let on — she was on the verge of a breakdown.
The author and editor had been struggling with anxiety well before that moment, but according to her candid op-ed in the Huffington Post, she knew in that instant that powering through was no longer a viable option. So she played the sick card and took the day off. “I went home, removing myself from the situation that was making me spiral with anxiety and giving myself a chance to regroup, to curl up in bed for an afternoon and overcome the panic and negative self-talk.” Billington writes.
She’s not alone in not wanting to reveal the reason for her time off. In a recent poll conducted for Quartz by SurveyMonkey, 53 percent of employed adults said they go to work on the days when they feel that they could benefit from a mental health day, 32 percent said they would call in sick, and only 15 percent said they would be honest about the reason for their day off.
Billington opens up in her story about an experience at a previous job, in which she was facing an unsettling matter in her personal life while juggling a slew of stressful tasks at work. She’d had conversations with her then-manager about taking time to prioritize her mental health, but when it came time to request time off, her boss was less than understanding. “She found it inappropriate and unacceptable,” Billington writes. “[I ended up] feeling ashamed and anxious for having requested the time off.” Still reeling from that past experience, she lied. “I don’t want management thinking I’m incapable of doing my job. On the contrary, I’m actually very good at it,” Billington notes. And yet: “There is an unjustified stigma around mental illness in the workplace and in general,” she writes. “When someone takes a sick day because of a virus or the common cold, their absence isn’t considered evidence that they can’t handle their work.”
The topic of mental well-being can be tough to navigate in the workplace. The first thing to know is that your employer can’t legally discriminate against you for a mental health condition. “From a legal standpoint and an HR standpoint, mental health issues in the workplace are protected by the the Americans with Disability Act (ADA),” Christy Hopkins, the CEO of HR consulting firm 4 Point Consulting, an on-demand HR consulting and recruiting firm, tells Thrive Global. “Whether you’re diagnosed with depression or not, you don’t have to disclose the details of your mental health day to your employer if you don’t want to. And if you do disclose, that information is protected under the law.”
Hopkins says the decision to disclose the reason behind your day off is yours to make. If you’re close with your manager and find her supportive, you may feel comfortable being honest with her, for instance, but if you aren’t sure how your boss will react, you may not want to tell. But it’s actually illegal for your employer to outright ask you about the details. “When it comes to mental health in the workplace, think of it like pregnancy,” Hopkins explains. “It’s your choice if you want to disclose your pregnancy to your employer. They cannot ask you, and they cannot fire you because of it. It’s the same case with mental health.”
If you are taking the day off for your psychological well-being, setting strict boundaries is key for getting the most out of your mental health day, according to Hopkins. “Whether you’re disclosing the purpose or not, make it known to your employer that you are truly offline for the day,” she suggests. “Take that time for a mental break. If you’re still on email all day, you’re really not getting the benefits of that mental break because you’re blurring the boundaries.”
“A day off can help,” Thomas Plante, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Stanford University School of Medicine, tells Thrive, but if you constantly find yourself needing to take mental health days, you could be hindering your well-being in the long run by turning to a short-term fix instead of dealing with an underlying issue head-on. “Mental health days can help in the short term, but they might not help in the long term if there’s a bigger problem to be addressed,” Plante says. If you suspect that’s the case, it’s better to consult with a therapist. Ignoring a deeper workplace issue can often add fuel to the fire, so it’s important to assess the nature of your office environment. Here are a few broader questions to ask yourself:
1. Is your workplace civil?
“Your work environment affects your bottom line. It affects your productivity, your well-being, and your overall health,” says Plante. If your office feels like a toxic environment, consider switching teams, raising a particular problem to HR, or even going elsewhere, says Plante. “Civility is key when it comes to company culture,” he notes. (Here at Thrive, compassionate directness is a key cultural value.) “Everybody needs to be treated with respect, compassion, and reverence. If that’s not happening, that’s a problem.”
2. Can you have a conversation about your workload?
It’s one thing to feel like your plate is too full, but it’s another thing to stay quiet about it if you’re feeling overwhelmed. According to Plante, corrective feedback is important when it comes to your well-being, both from employer to employee, and visa versa. Just like you’d want your manager to be honest with you, it’s vital to openly communicate if you feel like you’re hitting a wall. “Creating a culture of care starts with the employees,” Plante points out. “Don’t ignore the power of corrective feedback.”
3. Do you need more than a mental health day?
Feeling like you need an occasional break is normal, but if you have to lie about what’s going on inside, you might need more than a day off, Plante says. According to a 2018 APA survey, taking time off helps workers recharge, but the mental benefits that come from taking a brief vacation tend to fade within a few days of returning to work. In fact, 42 percent of participants of the organization’s well-being survey admitted they usually “dread” returning to work after a break. If you’re struggling with intense stress and anxiety, seeking professional help will probably help you more than a mental health day here and there. Remember that there’s no shame in reaching out when you don’t have the answers yourself.
[This article has been edited to include new information about your rights as an employee.]
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