Well-Being//

The New Rules of Taking a Mental Health Day From Work

No, it doesn’t have to be “planned.”

Maskot / Getty Images
Maskot / Getty Images

You wake up so drained and mentally exhausted that the mere thought of getting dressed for work sends you into a panic. But figuring out how to go about taking a mental health day is so stressful that you reluctantly put yourself (semi) together, and head to the office. The result: eight (or more) miserable hours at your desk, feeling unfocused, anxious, and irritable. Sound familiar? 

If you’ve ever been reluctant to tell your boss you’re staying home to tend to your emotional well-being, you’re not alone. “In fact, 95% of employees who have taken time off due to stress named another reason, such as an upset stomach or headache,” says Bernie Wong, senior associate at Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit whose mission is to transform the workplace so that those suffering from mental health conditions can be heard, get treatment, and thrive. And in a recent survey from Mental Health America, 55% of people admitted they were “afraid of getting punished for taking a day off to attend to their mental health.”

These findings, at a time when stress and burnout is a global crisis, are disturbing. And while the occasional mental health day surely can’t “fix” these bigger problems, learning to recognize — and honor — when we need a mental health break is an important key to our well-being. 

To help you navigate the tricky business of mental health days, Wong as well as Shanna B. Tiayon, Ph.D., social psychologist and H.R. professional, Camille Preston, Ph.D., founder and CEO of AIM Leadership, and Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster, answered our questions:

Q: When requesting time off for mental health reasons, should you be upfront with your boss about why you need the day(s) off?

Wong: In an ideal world, everyone would be able to be open and transparent — if they want to — about their mental health without fear of judgment or repercussions. However, that’s not the reality in most workplaces. In Mind Share Partners’ Mental Health at Work 2019 Report, we found that less than 30% of employees feel comfortable talking to their managers about their mental health, and even less (25%) to H.R. Consider the culture of mental health at your company or organization. For instance:

  • How do people talk about mental health, if at all? 
  • Is mental health viewed as a normal, human experience (considering that 80% of people will manage a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their lives)?
  • Have your leaders openly supported mental health at work? Have leaders and managers modeled healthy self-care and working habits? 
  • What is your relationship with your manager? Is it clear that a conversation about mental health will be supportive? 
  • Has your company invested in resources that truly support mental health at work, like benefits and flexible working — not just happy hours and ping pong tables?

Ultimately, it is up to the individual to evaluate the payoff of such transparency. 

Salemi: You don’t need to disclose the reason. You’re under no obligation even if you have a close relationship with your boss. You can say something as simple as, “I need to take a day off this Monday.” Or, if you want to, you can say, “I need to take a mental health day.” But you don’t need to say specific reasons beyond that.

Tiayon: So here’s the challenge with this one: My knee-jerk response is, Yes! You should be upfront about why you want to take time off, because otherwise we’re never going to change workplace culture if most employees decide not to be honest about needing mental health days. But I also understand there is a professional and reputational risk for doing so in some workplace cultures. Workplace cultures that reward working long hours and grinding it out at all costs are likely to frown upon these types of requests from employees, and there is the possibility for formal and informal punishment in the form of being overlooked for opportunities, straining the relationship with your manager, etc. In those cases, I’m completely an advocate for employees taking care of themselves — do what you have to do to take care of your own mental health needs; put wellness before work. 

Q: Should a mental health day be considered paid time off (PTO) or a sick day, as many corporations still make this distinction?

Tiayon: Organizations can empower employees by recognizing mental health days (not specifically tied to clinical mental illness) as a valid use of sick leave. For companies that still separate PTO and sick leave, PTO often has a cash value for employees, because they can cash out on it when they leave the organization, so there’s more of an incentive to save it and stock up on it. 

Salemi: It’s important to know your company’s policy of paid time off, including whether sick days, floating holidays, and PTO are pooled together. In that case, you don’t need to allot a day under a specific bucket.

Q: I’ve read the advice that taking a mental health day is OK, but we shouldn’t do it without advance planning. This advice, quite honestly, confused me. Are we really expected to know in advance when we’re going to desperately need a day to tend to our emotional well-being?

Salemi: The purpose of mental health days is to refuel and tend to yourself. They’re not always something you can plan in advance. 

Tiayon: There is a difference between proactive versus reactive mental health days, but one shouldn’t be privileged over the other. An employee should feel empowered to integrate both types of mental health days into their well-being strategy.

Wong: Is the best advice really to encourage employees to “plan for” when they need to take a day to manage a panic attack or the fatigue from working 60-hour weeks? Ultimately, micromanaging whether employees can take a day off and how they should expense their time off communicates your values as an individual and organization — it’s the hours, the resources, the output, but not the individual. Forward-thinking companies are instead combining their vacation and sick days, or implementing unlimited days off. They are focusing less of their time on asking for a doctor’s note and more on creating a more holistic and comprehensive approach to a culture of work within their organization driven by flexibility to accommodate the diversity of life experiences a workforce faces, rather than a rigid template of what it means to be productive. 

Q: Any other shifts you’d like to see in the conversation around mental health days?

Preston: Leaders need to step up and start to talk openly about mental health in the workplace. This is beginning to happen, but more leaders need to come forward and take a stand. To break the taboo around mental health in the workplace, change needs to start at the top and trickle down. You can put a program in place, but if people don’t see their leaders openly backing these wellness programs, nothing will change. 

Also, in an ideal world, all businesses would offer sick days and mental health days. After all, sometimes, things hit us like a brick — it could be news of a friend’s or relative’s death, or a period of high stress and uncertainty at work that is taking its toll. Whatever the reason, having the option for a self-care day could have a huge impact. Given that there is evidence people often underperform and even make poor decisions when under stress, this practice may save organizations far more money than it costs.

Wong: Mental health days can be an effective tool at the individual employee level to help manage any challenges they are experiencing, whether that be mental health-related or other things happening outside of work. That said, at the organizational level, companies must consider other effective and complementary strategies for supporting mental health beyond a day off, including mental health benefits, flexible working options, a culture of support, and many other mental health resources. Ultimately, while mental health days can reduce stress, they do not address factors in the workplace that have actually been shown to cause the development of mental health conditions and burnout. These include poor management, lack of recognition or compensation, low social support, and high job strain. Mental health days are good for business, but what’s even better is a comprehensive culture shift.

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