Americans get fewer vacation days than any other wealthy nation in the world, but the pressure to perform at work, show loyalty to your boss, and have a reputation as a hard worker prompts many people to not even take what little allowance they have. Here’s why you shouldn’t feel guilty for taking a mental health day (spoiler: everyone wins):
Mental illness is common. It may not be the standard topic of discussion in the office cafeteria, but millions of Americans struggle with mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 52.9 million people (21% of American adults) experienced a mental illness at some point during a one-year period. If you worry that taking a mental health day will make you look “weak” or “lazy,” know that you are not an anomaly. Fewer than half of adults who experience mental health issues seek help. If you can be an example for what it looks like to take care of yourself, you might inspire some of your colleagues to do the same.
Mental health is just as important as physical health. For centuries, the detrimental effects of mental health have been wildly underestimated, largely because they are usually invisible. When someone breaks their arm the symptoms are visible–they will probably wear a cast. But a person suffering from a mental illness suffers in silence, however acute their pain is. Poor mental health is just as difficult to live with as poor physical health, and because many of us work more with our brains than our bodies (sitting behind a computer instead of lifting things, for example), mental illness is arguably a greater barrier to our jobs than physical illness.
Presenteeism is worse than absenteeism. Have you ever shown up to work so stressed and exhausted that you’re there in body but not in mind? Presenteeism is the practice of going to work even when you are physically or mentally incapable of performing, and it is proven to be worse than not coming to work at all. An American Productivity Audit estimated that presenteeism costs the US economy over 150 billion dollars a year due to its resulting lack of motivation, mistakes, and fatigue. From a pure productivity calculation, you will be a much better employee if you take a mental health day than if you show up to work unable to do your job.
Mental health is becoming less stigmatized. One of the few good things to come out of the pandemic is that mental health may be less stigmatized than it used to be. With so many people suffering from the isolation and uncertainty of lockdowns and new variants, mental health issues have been a constant companion. Now is a good time to capitalize on this shift and stand up for your mental health. If your boss or coworkers have a problem with you taking a mental health day, they’re the ones who are in the minority, not you.
Your boss will benefit. As demonstrated by the cost of presenteeism, your boss will be the biggest winner if you take a mental health day. By avoiding mental and emotional exhaustion, you will maintain your high performance at work. You will be able to maintain your image as a hard-working employee and make the most of your time at the office.
Your family will benefit. Despite our best intentions, we tend to take out our frustrations on those we love most. Having a temper tantrum at work is not a great look, so we save it for our families. If you can prevent your stress from getting the better of you, your family won’t have to deal with it themselves. Taking a mental health day will give you time to process your emotions instead of taking them out on the people around you.
Your physical health will be better. Mental illness does not just impact your mind, it also affects your physical health. People with depression are 40% more likely to develop cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, while 32% of people with a mental health disorder suffer from substance abuse. The depletion and lack of motivation caused by many mental illnesses also prevent people from taking care of their physical wellbeing through exercise, healthy eating, sleeping, etc. Resolving mental illness is therefore one of the best ways to maintain physical health as well.
Burnout is hard to resolve. Burnout is a recognized medical condition that is the result of workplace exhaustion. It carries physical and mental ramifications and can take years to fix. Some sufferers even have to attend rehabilitation programs. Avoiding burnout will save you an enormous amount of time and energy, and maybe even your job. If all you need is a few mental health days throughout the year, it’s more than worth it. By taking time off, you’re saving yourself a lot of suffering.
You have sick days for a reason. Most people reserve sick leave for physical illness, but it should include mental illness as well. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows all U.S. employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for mental health issues. Obviously, this is not ideal, but it is a good fallback if you are one of the 30% of Americans who does not have paid sick leave. If you do have paid sick leave, you may be able to use it for your mental health. Check with your HR department, or if you work somewhere that does not have a mental health policy, you could always just call in sick without specifying what type of illness you have. Mental illness is an illness. You are entitled to a sick day.
How To Make The Most Of Your Mental Health Day
Once you’ve convinced yourself to take a mental health day (do it!) you need to make the most out of it. Here’s what you should prioritize:
Sleep in. You need rest to destress and relax your mind and body. Waking up with your alarm is triggering. Turn it off, pull the curtains, and wake up when your body is ready. Sleep should be your number one priority when you take the day off, just as it would be if you had the flu.
Do something fun. If you have the energy, do something you enjoy. Go watch a movie in the theater or swim at a friend’s house. Take your dog for a walk or get a massage. Focusing on activities that fill your mind with warmth and contentment instead of all the work that’s waiting for you when you get back to the office will ensure that you recharge your batteries during your mental health day.
Don’t make it a work-from-home day. The most important thing to avoid during your mental health day is work. “Work” isn’t confined to sitting at a desk doing job-related tasks. It includes thinking about work–your to-do list, the conversation that you’re planning with your coworker, and any projects you’re working on. Being physically out of the office doesn’t mean you’re mentally out of the office. If you want to take full advantage of your mental health day, you need to turn off the work side of your brain.
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