How to Take Time Off of Work For Your Mental Health

As a society, we have made strides when discussing mental health and its impact on physical health, but there are still people who are afraid to take time off of work for their mental health.

We need to have conversations that eradicate this fear.

“In the United States, almost half of adults (46.4 percent) will experience a mental illness during their lifetime (Kapil, 2019).”

Maybe you are experiencing your first brush with:

  • burnout
  • depression
  • anxiety

Each of these is a real medical diagnosis.

Therefore, you can use sick time or personal time off if you need to.

The first thing you need to do is to recognize the symptoms and acknowledge what is happening. 

Symptoms to look for when deciding if you need a mental health day

The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Three dimensions characterize it:

  1. Feelings of energy reduction or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or bitterness related to one’s career.
  3. Reduced professional ability.

“Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life (WHO).”

Mentally, you might dread going to work and count down the minutes until the horn blows, and you can go home.

Maybe, you are finding it harder to focus on the tasks at hand.

Is everyone (even people you like at work) getting on your last nerve?

These are all signs of burnout.

Burnout can lead to physical symptoms like insomnia, headaches, stomachaches, nausea, and a compromised immune system. 

The effects of Generalized Anxiety Disorder persist for at least several months, for more days than not, and comprise general apprehension or excessive worry focused on multiple everyday events.

These events often center on family, health, finances, and school or work.

GAD’s physical symptoms include “muscular tension or motor restlessness, sympathetic autonomic over-activity, subjective experience of nervousness, difficulty maintaining concentration, irritability, or sleep disturbance.”

If you feel you are experiencing any of these, it is time to take the day off! 

Employees may not request the day off when needed because they can not lose the money they would make.

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If you are an hourly worker and this is your primary concern, try reaching out to your supervisor.

Maybe you can come in on a different day and make the hours up.

Perhaps a coworker needs a different day off and will swap with you.

However, if you are a salaried, full-time, or professional employee, you likely have sick time to cover your day.

Can I use sick time for mental health concerns?

When taking a mental health day, understanding how to use your paid time for the day is the next thing to consider.

Trust me; as a Management and HR professional, sick time will apply to mental health days.

The wording in most sick time policies will read something along these lines (SHRM):

Employees may use sick leave for personal illness, well-care, and medical and dental appointments.

Sick leave also may be used for illness and well-care of a member of an employee’s immediate family (including the employee’s spouse, children, mother, and father).

The people who work in your company’s HR department fight hard for your benefits package, and if you have these days, by all means, use them!

Your manager, or direct supervisor, should be in line with the policy.

You are not required to disclose why you are requesting the time off. 

How do you tell your boss that you’re taking a mental health day?

I’m struggling just to get through the days. I think a lot of people are.” — Justin Bieber

As an employee, review the paid time off policy before accepting an offer of employment.

Some guidelines are standard across the board; however, some employers are more generous than others.

In a perfect world, your manager or supervisor is a person who understands that these benefits are part of a package designed to keep top talent and make sure that employees are well.

If that is the case, then it should be a straightforward process where you can say:

“I have a doctor’s appointment scheduled and will use a sick day on…”

“I have some well-care appointments scheduled for this day and will need it off.”

“Today, I am taking a sick day because of illness.”

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It is important to note a few things about most paid sick time off.

If you request to use sick time for over three consecutive workdays, you will probably be required to provide a note.

Your provider may write this note if they have diagnosed you with mental illness.

More extended absences may require you to apply for FMLA.

However, neither of these should be an issue when you need a day to recoup and recharge. 

Sometimes the culture within part of the organization doesn’t align with the policies set forth by the whole.

This type of unsupportive culture is easy to spot.

Does your manager make negative comments when people use sick time?

Do you see your manager not using their paid time off when they are unwell?

Using your time off is uncomfortable when you suspect people will say negative things about it.

But as long as you follow the guidelines of your company policy, you can not be punished.

Related: Mental Health

Best practices for requesting sick time

Now, there are some things you can do that make using your sick time a little easier for your manager.

While this is not a requirement for using your sick time, our guilt about burdening someone can be why many of us show up to work when we shouldn’t.

Here are a few tips so you can avoid feeling like this:

  • Request it off if you know that a specific day (like the anniversary of a loved one’s death) is hard for you. Giving plenty of notice that you will use a sick day will enable your manager to schedule it in advance.
  • Call (or email) and let your supervisor or manager know as soon as you decide you need a mental health day so that they can plan.
  • If you need to involve your HR department to avoid negative comments or pushbacks, please know that is why they are there.

What should you do on your mental health day?

Laying in your bed all day may be the best remedy for the flu.

However, it is often the opposite of what you need when feeling depressed, burnt out, or stressed.

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Try spending your mental health day in ways that will help you combat stress’s effects.

You can: 

  • Meditate
  • See your therapist 
  • Get outside and connect with nature
  • Enjoy a massage

Activities such as reading a book, writing in your journal, painting, or drawing pictures, will also help you feel refreshed and relieve stress.

Have you been putting all of your personal needs on the back burner?

Your mental health day is the perfect day to call and make all your annual appointments, go to the grocery store, and run any other errands you have been adding to your list to-do list!

I usually end up deep-cleaning a closet or something because the decluttering makes me less anxious.

Not the most exciting thing, but it makes me feel better!  

Don’t feel you have to cram all these activities on your mental health day.

Listen to your body, and do what you think is best.

If you have not been sleeping well and have body aches, maybe you sleep in and get a massage.

Feeling trapped in the house, then go for a hike or a swim.

If you are overwhelmed because these other tasks need attention, then tackle those!

You are the best authority on whether you need a mental health day and how to spend it once you decide to take one.

“Mental health needs a great deal of attention. It’s the final taboo, and it needs to be faced and dealt with.”Adam Ant

You might wonder if it would just be easier to call in and say you have a cold and can’t come in, and to be honest, you totally could.

You shouldn’t have to, though.

Any dialogue we can foster about how mental and physical health are essential parts of our overall health.

These conversations will help reduce the stigma around things that impact many of us.

Norbert Juma, the lead editor at, reminds us that “Without positive mental health, it will be almost impossible to realize your full potential, work productively, contribute meaningfully to your community, or handle the stress that comes with life.”

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