How to Take a Mental Health Day

By Kristie Reilly @YourCareE
July 06, 2015

Taking time off can improve performance at work.

Depression takes a huge toll on productivity in the workplace. It may be the cause of as much as 200 million lost work days a year, at a cost of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy.  

In fact, according to the Depression Center at the University of Michigan, depression is the cause of as many or more lost work days than heart disease, diabetes, or back problems.

The effect of Impaired concentration and cognitive ability, common symptoms in depression, on workplace performance is also significant. Meanwhile, untreated depression can lead to frequent missed work days or “presenteeism” — when you’re at work but so preoccupied with other things that you may as well not be. The first clearly won’t help work performance, but the second isn’t ideal either.

Depression at work can be difficult to distinguish from the accumulation of stress and emotional exhaustion known as “burnout.” A 2014 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.  

For those suffering from mental health issues like exhaustion or depression, taking a break may be difficult in our work-focused culture — but it’s the best way to recover.

“While breaks are countercultural in most organizations and counterintuitive for many high achievers, their value is multifaceted,” Tony Schwartz, author of “The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance,” writes 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, Schwartz 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 the phone, moving away from the 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. While emotional self-care, particularly related to depression, often gets swept under the carpet in American workplaces, many companies fold mental health into larger wellness programs. Still, a good program should recognize the importance of renewal and rest in preventing burnout and depression and promote exercise and social connection, perhaps via volunteering. All can have a huge impact on mood and well-being.

Smart employers and supervisors realize this, and many increasingly address stress and burnout along with their common companion, depression, in employee wellness plans. Others aren’t so supportive. So what should you do if you need 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 (and if so, good for you), 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 ultimately 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.

So if you sense you’re headed for a meltdown, pay attention, and 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. And 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, and 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.


April 06, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA