Mental Health Days Are Vital. Here’s How to Get the Most Out of Yours.

A woman sitting at a desk leans forward and, using her right hand, squeezes the area where her nose meets her forehead.

There’s no question that our workplaces — and the drama within them — affect our mental health. In fact, a 2021 report found that 84 percent of American workers feel their job has negatively impacted their mental health.

This report only polled people employed by companies. But we shouldn’t expect that people who perform unpaid labor — caretaking, homemaking — are exempt. Research shows that caregivers are more stressed and depressed than non-caregivers. And a long-term study found that stay-at-home moms had worse mental health outcomes than their full-time working peers. Bottom line: Paid and unpaid work can be seriously stressing.

Sound familiar? Then you may want to consider taking a mental health day. Just as you’d tend to your physical health by taking a sick day if you picked up the flu from Gary in accounting, taking a mental health day can help you return to work recharged, says AbleTo Clinical Content Producer Sarah Dolling, LPC. Not to mention, better able to handle work-related stress.

The number of employers who offer mental health days is on the rise, according to the same 2021 report. But it’s still far from universal. That’s a shame since 50% of workers say they’ve left a job due to the effect it was having on their mental health. (That number spikes to 81 percent when you only look at Gen Z. )

What’s that mean for you? Depending on your employer’s policies (or your disability status; see below), you may need to tap into your paid time off for a mental reprieve. Or try to negotiate unpaid time off.

We know that can be a strain. So you’ll want to pick and use your mental health days wisely. Keep reading to learn how to do just that.

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How to know when to take a mental health day

Hearing that Monday morning alarm is often a drag. But there’s a difference between the normal feeling that work is, well, work, and needing a day to recharge. Here’s how you can start to tell the difference.

Check in with yourself regularly

Dolling uses journaling to track her everyday moods and stresses. It helps her spot patterns. “If I’m regularly feeling unenthusiastic about my work, it’s a sign that I need to take a mental health day,” she says.

Your signals may be different. You may not feel burned out. Instead, you might feel more anxious each day. That too, can be a sign that you need a break.

Act early

Knowing when you’re at your limit is important. But you don’t have to be at your worst to take time off. In fact, it’s beneficial to do it before you must.

A few years ago, Dolling noticed stress from work showing up as tension in her back. But, by the time she dealt with it, it had turned into physical pain. Now she takes note of any tension she’s feeling and builds in time to rest. And she does it long before it impairs her.

Make the most of your day off

The goal of a mental health day isn’t just to take a day off from work, says Dolling. You should aim to return in better mental health. Here’s how.

Be a feelings detective

Figuring out what’s causing your stress can help you pinpoint how to use your day off. For example: Let’s say you’re feeling overwhelmed at work and at home. Using your mental health day to remove home stressors could help you return to the office in a healthier headspace.

Put yourself first

If your to-do list isn’t a problem, then checking items off it probably isn’t the best use of your mental health day. Instead, attend to your physical, mental, and emotional needs.

“We have to get out of the mindset that self care is selfish,” says Dolling. “You can’t take care of others if you’re not taking care of yourself.” So don’t feel guilty about ignoring your to-do list. Lounge around reading a book. Or go get that massage. Putting yourself first today will help you be a better employee, partner, parent, and friend tomorrow.

Figure out what works for you

Everyone refills their energy stores differently. One person may enjoy cooking. But you might find it exhausting. So it’s important to take stock of what refreshes you, says Dolling. And what drains you. Focus on the former during your mental health days.

Talk to loved ones in advance

Stepping away from others’ needs as you tend to your own is vital. But your family and friends may need help understanding why. Gently explain that needing a break isn’t necessarily about them, says Dolling. Let them know it’s temporary and that it has no bearing on your relationship. And don’t forget to ask for help with childcare or chores. Remember: You want to fully focus on yourself.

Important info about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

If you have a mental illness that greatly limits 1 or more major life activities, it may be considered a disability under the ADA. If so, and you’ve disclosed this to your employer, they may be required to provide “reasonable accommodations.”

These accommodations may include:

  • A flexible schedule
  • Sick leave for reasons related to mental health
  • Flexible use of vacation time
  • Additional unpaid or administrative leave for treatment or recovery
  • Leaves of absence. And/or occasional leave (a few hours at a time) for related appointments

Policies may vary by employer and/or state. Review your employer’s time-off policy. And read through any federal or state medical leave laws or policies that may apply. If you have questions, contact the ADA information line at 1-800-514-0301.

Healthy workers are happy workers

Hopefully, you return to work feeling better. If not, or if the feel-good vibes quickly vanish, it may be time to talk to take further action.

If you know what the issue is, discuss your concerns and potential solutions with your boss. Ultimately, it’s in their best interest to help you.

In the 2021 report referenced above, employees said they only performed at 72% of their total capacity when accounting for their mental health. But, employees were 2.5 times more likely to stay with their current employer if they felt their workplaces fostered a supportive mental health environment.

At the end of the day, you may not be able to change your work culture. But you can help yourself by taking time off when you need it. By doing so, you’ll be a happier, more productive team member.

Need help putting these tips into practice?

You may be eligible for virtual therapy, coaching, or on-demand self care from AbleTo. Each program is designed by clinicians and grounded in science. Sign up today and get the support you deserve.

By Anne Derman

Clinically reviewed by Hayley Quinn, PsyD, Senior Manager of Clinical Product Experience at AbleTo.

Photo by jacoblund/iStock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.

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