How to Take a Mental Health Day

By Kristie Reilly and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
September 20, 2022
How to Take a Mental Health Day

Staying healthy is part of your work performance, since burnout and anxiety may impair it. So, be honest with yourself when you need a mental health day.

Depression takes a huge toll on the workplace, leading to as many as 200 million lost work days a year, at a cost of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy.

People with diagnosed depression miss an average of nearly five workdays over three months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.   


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Depression also makes people unproductive, as many are unfocused, overwhelmed, sad, or tired. Among patients, the average number of substandard workdays during a quarter is 11.5.

But the majority of people with depression do not contact any mental health professional and suffer without a diagnosis or treatment for long stretches.

It's important to recognize that your job may be a big factor in your depression. Low control, working too many hours, lack of friends at work, and too many challenges are all stressors. In fact, work stress is a leading cause of suicide.  

Unhappiness at work can be described as “burnout,” when jobs just become so difficult you’re chronically exhausted. A study of more than 5,500 teachers found that 90 percent of those identified by a standard questionnaire as burned-out also met the clinical criteria for depression.  

Everyone needs to take a break

If you’re exhausted or sad, taking a break may be difficult in our work-focused culture, but it’s the best way to recover. Remember that you’re not unusual, especially in certain workplaces or roles. High achievers, especially, may not believe a break will help, notes Tony Schwartz, author of “The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance,” in the Harvard Business Review.

Taking time to recharge will have a positive impact on your overall performance, well-being, and physical and mental health, he says.

Schwartz helps companies create wellness plans that incorporate regular breaks and has seen productivity and creativity soar in those clients. He suggests taking a short but real break — shutting off your phone, moving away from your computer — every 90 minutes and incorporating one or two longer breaks into each day, such as a full hour at lunch or a walk in the afternoon.

Shutting off helps the mind renew itself, according to his research. Schwartz’s clients find their best ideas often arrive during those periods of rest.

The same principle applies to “mental health” days. A good wellness program recognizes the importance of renewal and rest in preventing burnout and depression and promotes exercise and social connection.

Making time to work out and see friends will help, but if you are clinically depressed, or close to it, you’ll need to do more. You may need everything from medication to a medical leave or lasting changes in your job role.

Self-care may begin with a simple day off. Decide in advance if you must spend that day catching up on chores or analyzing what needs to change in your life. Perhaps you most need rest.

How to take a mental health day

Often people are unwilling to tell their boss they’re taking a day off for their mental health. Unless you have an exceptionally good relationship with your supervisor, that’s probably wise.

Remember that, whether paid or unpaid, sick time and personal leave are yours to use as you choose, and your health information and privacy are yours alone: You’re never required to share the reason for a sick day or any details about your health status or medical conditions.

If depression is related to your personal life, don’t ignore it: Seek help. Many companies have anonymous employee assistance programs that provide a listening ear and referrals to mental health resources in your community.

If the depression is work-related, know that addressing it by judiciously taking time off to care for yourself is likely to improve your performance. Even if your workplace doesn’t acknowledge mental health days, taking one occasionally is still in your employer’s best interest, as long as you don’t go overboard.

If you sense you’re headed for a meltdown, pay attention. You can likely head it off at the pass. Take a mental health day to recharge and spare your relationships and performance.

A few caveats to remember

  • Consider your workload. Be considerate of others, particularly your immediate coworkers. Try to pick a slow day at work, not the day of a big meeting or important event. Try to avoid always being “sick” on a Friday or Monday — frequent long weekends are a major red flag to supervisors.
  • Don’t overindulge. What happens if your sick days are maxed out by June, and you sprain an ankle in August? Not being able to walk easily is a good reason to take time off, but if you don’t have the time available, your boss probably won’t be sympathetic. Take days in moderation; remember to bank some for true emergencies.
  • Don’t over-explain. Keep explanations short — a line or two in an email is enough. Email only affected parties (not the whole office) if you can, rather than call, and use broad, neutral language: You might say simply, “I’m not feeling well and am going to take a sick day.”

If you’re questioned on your return, politely thank the person for their concern and say you’re feeling better. Coworkers will soon learn to ask generally, not specifically, after your health.


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September 20, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA and Janet O'Dell, RN