Taking Mental Health Days

I used to be of the mindset that no matter how I was feeling, no matter how anxious or depressed I felt, I should push through and show up no matter what. This seriously flawed logic had me at work, a fake smile plastered to my face, the day after my almost-suicide attempt (as I write this I hate that I’m downplaying it but, despite all my openness, I still feel a lot of stigma).

If that didn’t deserve a day off I don’t know what did. 

I’ve come to realize that the need for mental health days should be taken just as seriously as the need for sick days. Yet, despite all the lip service we give legitimizing mental health and the seriousness of it, mental health days are still stigmatized. 

What is a mental health day?

A mental health day is like a sick day. Some of the articles I’ve read suggest pre-planning your mental health day by booking a day off in advance so you might have something to look forward to. Personally, I have some issues with this suggestion. One, I don’t always know when I’m going to need to take a day off to take care of my mental health. Two, I don’t necessarily want to use a vacation day to cover my mental health recovery if I have sick-time I can use. Mental health is not a vacation.

Why should you take a mental health day?

If we’re going to take mental health seriously we need to take recovery seriously. When I have the flu I let my body recover so why would I ignore my brain when it needs the same care? When I’m not feeling well and choose to go into work, my work suffers. I’m distracted, I’m not as efficient, and I’m more prone to making mistakes. I would say that not only does this apply when I’m struggling with my mental health but these issues are heightened even more

How should you spend a mental health day? 

First, try to let go of the guilt. A lot of people I’ve talked to say the same thing – the guilt they feel when they take a day off to take care of their mental health can be just as distracting as if they had gone into work. It’s difficult, but remember you are taking care of yourself. 

Second, do what feels right. Don’t feel like you need to punish yourself for taking the day off by doing chores you hate. You can do something productive but do it because you want to. Personally, I love doing laundry so I’d be happy to throw a load or two but I would never vacuum the house because there is no chore I despise more. Take a walk, watch something funny, read a book, stretch, call a friend… whatever you need. Self-care doesn’t have to be something indulgent; self-care can be as simple as taking a shower. 

Third, try to be mindful. Listen to what your body is telling you. Maybe you don’t want to go for a walk and would rather spend the day watching TV. That’s fine! But try to watch with intention instead of mindlessly binge-watching whatever you find first on Netflix.

How many people are actually taking mental health days?

I wasn’t surprised when a lot of people had told me they had taken mental health days and that many of them felt guilty about calling in sick because it doesn’t “feel like a typical illness.” I was even less surprised when people told me that sometimes they feel like they aren’t able to take mental health days because they feel anxious taking them, they can’t always afford to take a day off, and they want to avoid prying questions from both management and their coworkers. 

However, I was pleasantly surprised when some people answered that they were able to be honest with their bosses about why they needed a day off and that their bosses were completely understanding. To me, this says that while we’re not quite there, many workplaces are starting to take mental health very seriously. 

So, what’s next? 

Sometimes simple changes in language make a huge difference. I like that sick days are actually labelled as “personal days” in the payroll program my workplace uses because it makes me feel like our HR department understands not everything in regards to health is black and white. 

Also, some of my past interviewees had mentioned that their workplaces have placed a focus on the importance of supporting employees with mental health through offering programs for management to better understand how to tackle mental health. Some of these programs are labelled along the lines of Mental Health First Aid, placing an emphasis on the sort of care and compassion we should be providing to anyone facing a struggle we can’t see. 

I think management plays a big role in helping their employees feel comfortable in being honest about needing a mental health day. Personally, my boss has shown me a lot of kindness and compassion during some rough times that it makes me want to work as hard as possible for him, knowing he has my back. Therefore, if I’m going to take a mental health day I really do need it (NOTE: I’m not inferring people who take mental health days are taking advantage of the system. I believe that people who are honest about needing them are extremely careful about taking them only when necessary).

My personal tips for taking a mental health day

When and how you decide to take a mental health day entirely up to you. There are no hard or fast rules so the only way you’ll be able to figure out what you need is to try new things and listen to yourself. In the meantime, here are some of my suggestions:

  1. Practice self-care. Don’t wait for that mental health day. Go home after work or spend a Sunday afternoon trying new ways of self-care. 
  2. Get a change of scenery. Instead of staying in bed maybe take your mental health day to your couch. If going outside feels like too much try opening a window to bring fresh air to you.
  3. Do easy things. Wash your face. Brush your teeth. You can stay in PJs but maybe you want to put on a new pair. 

Have you ever taken a day off for mental health? 
Is there anything that’s stopping you from taking a mental health day?
What are your favourite ways to “self-care?”

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