When Should You Take a Mental Health Day?

Featured on Fast Company. Author: Art Markman

Paid time off when you are sick is a benefit for many full-time employees. More recently, this has been extended to include “mental health days” in which employees use a sick day because of stress and burnout rather than for illnesses like flu or cold.

Is it a good idea to take mental health days?

As with so many questions related to human psychology, the answer is, “It depends.”

First, it is important to separate out two kinds of mental health days. One involves diagnosed mental illness. The other is related to a more colloquial use of the term in which you are using sick time to decrease stress that may build up as part of the normal course of work.

If you are feeling high levels of stress and anxiety on a regular basis, then you should consider working with a therapist or psychiatrist to determine whether your feelings reflect depression or an anxiety disorder. Each year, about 18% of the population is likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders. If you find that anxiety is really getting in the way of your ability to live our life fully, you should get checked out—sooner rather than later.

If you are diagnosed with depression or an anxiety disorder, then you need to recognize that is also a physical illness—just like colds and flu. Work with your therapist to determine when you should take time off to deal with your symptoms.

For people who are not suffering from clinical levels of depression and anxiety, the occasional “mental health day” might still be valuable, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

It is generally not a good idea to take a mental health day spontaneously. That is, if you wake up in the morning and dread going to work, don’t use that feeling as a reason to call in sick. Stress and anxiety are emotional experiences you have when there is something in your world you are trying to avoid. If you call in sick when you feel this way, you are laying down a memory that can start to create a habit to respond to stress and anxiety by actually avoiding work that may need to be done. You don’t want your go-to response to stress to be to run away from it.

Instead, take some time to think about what about your work is causing stress. If there is a task that needs to be completed or a meeting that you dread having, that day off is not going to relieve the stress much. The uncompleted task is still going to need to be done. And throughout your day off, you may end up ruminating about that task when you could have gone to work to get it done. Even if you do manage to keep your mind off work for the day, the source of stress is still going to be there the next morning. You’re better off diving into the dreaded task and getting it done.

That doesn’t mean that you should never take a mental health day. But you want to plan it out. Think about what activities will make the day worth taking. There are two strategies that can make your mental health day valuable for stress relief.

One strategy is to plan a day that takes you away from the things you are trying to avoid for the day. When you successfully avoid the negative things in your world that are out there, you feel relief. There are many ways to create an oasis of serenity. Take a half-day at a spa. Go out into nature and hike. Do a yoga or meditation class. Work on skills to help you separate yourself from the stressors in your world.


The other strategy is to take the day to knock off other sources of stress in your environment. Perhaps your busy life has made it impossible to stay on top of paying the bills, cleaning the house, or organizing things for the family. If so, you can use the day to deal with these tasks. Work might also be damaging your personal relationships. You might want to coordinate your mental health day with your spouse or partner and take some time together. You might reach out to a friend or family member to spend time with to keep those relationships going smoothly.

It might seem paradoxical to take a day off work in order to do another kind of work. But part of what knocks out your resilience is when you leap out of the frying pan of work stress and into the fire of home stress. If you can make your home a less stressful place to be, that can make it easier to handle the inevitable stresses at work.


Finally, consider taking more mental health hours rather than days. Build more exercise into your regular routine. Get a massage or spa treatment on a regular basis. Get up in the morning and walk in a pretty place before you head to work. Rather than letting the stress build up until it is intolerable and then trying to release it all at once, see if you can make stress-busting activities a part of the way you live your life.

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