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How to Take Time Off of Work For Your Mental Health

Published on June 29, 2020 8:30 AM EST
How to Take Time Off of Work For Your Mental Health

As a society, we have begun to make strides when discussing mental health and its impact on physical health, but there are still people who are afraid to take a mental health day.

We need to have conversations that eradicate this fear because, “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, or anxiety.

How to Take Time Off of Work For Your Mental Health

Each of these is a real medical diagnosis, and as such, 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 tasks at hand. Is everyone (even people you like at work) getting on your last nerve? These are all signs of burnout, and they can lead to physical symptoms like insomnia, headaches, stomachaches, nausea, and a compromised immune system. 

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The effects of Generalized Anxiety Disorder persist for at least several months, for more days than not, and consist of general apprehension or excessive worry focused on multiple everyday events. These events often center around 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 like you are experiencing any of these, then it is past time to take the day off! 

One reason employees do not request the day off when they need it for mental health concerns is lost money. If you are an hourly worker and this is your primary concern, try reaching out to your supervisor.

Maybe you will be able to come in on a different day and make the hours up, or perhaps there is a coworker who needs a different day off and is willing to 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 mental health concerns?

Figuring out how to use your paid time for the day is the next thing to consider when taking a mental health day. As a Management and HR professional, I can assure you that sick time will apply to mental health days. The wording in most sick time policies will read something along these lines (SHRM):

Sick leave may be used 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, then, by all means, use them! Your manager, or direct supervisor, should be in line with the policy, and you are not required to disclose in detail why you are requesting the time off. 

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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, you should 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 retain top talent and make sure that employees are well. If that is the case, then it should be a straight forward process where you can say:

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

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

“I will be using sick day today due to illness.”

It is important to note a few things about the majority of paid sick time off. If you are requesting to use sick time for a span of more than three consecutive workdays, you will likely be required to provide a note.

If you have been diagnosed with mental illness, then your provider may write this note for you. More extended absences may require you to apply for FMLA, but in cases where you need a day to recoup and recharge, neither of these should be an issue. 

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

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It can be uncomfortable to use your time off when you suspect that people will say negative things about it, but as long as you follow the guidelines of your company policy, you can not be punished.

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 by no means a requirement for using your sick time, the idea that we are burdening someone else 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:

  • If you know that there is a specific day (like the anniversary of a loved one’s death) that is hard for you, request it off. Giving plenty of notice that you will be using 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 that you need a mental health day so that they can make arrangements.
  • 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, but often it is the opposite of what you need when you are feeling depressed, burnt out, or stressed. Try spending your mental health day in ways that are going to help you combat the effects of stress.

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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 like you have to cram all of these activities in on your mental health day. Listen to your body, and do what you think is best. If you have not been sleeping well and having body aches, maybe you sleep in and get a massage.

If you have been feeling trapped in the house, then go for a hike or a swim. If you are overwhelmed because all of 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 be wondering 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 that we can foster about how mental health and physical health are essential parts of our overall health will help reduce the stigma around things that impact a great deal of us.

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

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