4 Min Read

Mental Health Days Are Real: How to Deal With Mental Health Issues at Work

Brad Brenner, Ph.D.

With this effort, Shine hoped to call attention to the mental health “gap” at workplaces. This gap, said Shine, was evidenced in a survey in which 95 percent said their work would improve if they were allowed to take a mental health day, but only 28 percent felt comfortable requesting time off for this purpose.

At 3:00 p.m. on May 15, 2019, a meditation app named Shine sponsored the first-ever National Mental Health Break. Participating companies signed a pledge to encourage employees to take a break from work — 20 minutes, an hour, or even an entire day — to prioritize their mental health. More than 70 firms took part in the event, which included sharing an internal message from leadership urging team members to take mental health days whenever they needed them.

The impact on business

There is a multitude of evidence that closing the mental health gap by making conversations about mental health a regular part of work would be beneficial for businesses. The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy more than $1 trillion in lost productivity each year. On the flip side, for every dollar businesses spend on caring for their employees’ mental health, they receive a return of four dollars in improved health and productivity.

So why aren’t businesses more forthcoming in addressing mental health issues within the workplace? And why are workers reluctant to admit to their employers they need time off to take care of their mental health? If Shine’s survey is any indication, we’re still a long way from making discussions of mental health in the workplace comfortable and commonplace.

Most experts believe that this discomfort is due to the stigma that still surrounds mental health conditions. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), at least one in five adults have some sort of mental illness in the United States. Despite these statistics and the growing prevalence of therapy options available, somehow many American workers still disguise much-needed mental health breaks as vacation days or sick days to avoid admitting to employers that they’re stressed out.

Requesting a mental health break

Although organizations like Shine are still working to help many companies understand why and how they should grant employees mental health breaks, workers shouldn’t let the perceived mental health gap stop them from taking time off from work to deal with stressors. They might be surprised at the response they receive from supervisors.

In 2017, a Michigan web developer asked her boss for a few days off to “focus on my mental health.” Her supervisor’s response was so unusual that she posted both her request and his return email on Twitter, and the posts went viral. Instead of admonishing her or requiring a valid excuse for her absence, he thanked her for her email. Calling her “an example to us all,” he praised her for helping “cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.” The comments to her post, which netted 15,300 retweets and 43,900 likes, were overwhelmingly positive. Some companies even shared their mental health day policies as templates for others.

If an employer doesn’t offer specified mental health leave or include mental health conditions in its sick leave policy, experts recommend being brief when requesting time off. Very few employers have no-questions-asked sick leave, but a simple “I need to be off to take care of some health issues” should suffice. Of course, medical appointments are usually accepted as reasons for sick days, even if they are scheduled with a psychologist to discuss your mental health concerns.

Find a Therapist to Help Deal With Mental Health Issues at Work

Get personalized matches

How to know when you need a break

When employees start experiencing physical symptoms like a fever, body aches, fatigue, and chills, they don’t hesitate to take a sick day to deal with the flu. There should also be no hesitation to call in when experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, severe stress, or burnout.

Although it’s not a medical diagnosis, the Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as a “special type of work-related stress.” It may manifest itself as physical or emotional exhaustion, changing sleep habits, irritability or impatience with coworkers, disillusionment, or lack of energy. There are a variety of causes for burnout, including lack of control at work, lack of social support, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, or work-life imbalance. There are also strong correlations to depression and anxiety.

It’s best, however, to consider taking a mental health day before symptoms get to burnout level. Women’s Health Magazine cited these eight signs as an indication that you need to take a mental health day:

  • You’re exhausted and you can’t sleep
  • You’re more anxious than usual
  • You can’t focus
  • You’re feeling down in the dumps
  • You’re easily set off
  • You keep getting sick
  • You feel like you’re in slow motion
  • You feel disconnected

When one or more of these symptoms are present, it’s probably time to take a mental health break. “If you don’t address these mental health issues, they will consume all other areas of your life,” Amy Sullivan, Psy.D., of the Cleveland Clinic told Women’s Health. “When the mind is healthy, so is the body.”

How to spend your mental health day

The crucial goal of a mental health day, whether it’s a few hours, an entire workday, or even an extended weekend, is to reduce negative emotions. This means spending that time taking care of yourself and doing things that will relax you rather than increase your stress. This also means not feeling guilty about being away from work.

Relaxation and rest are highly recommended by experts. That could mean a day drifting in and out of sleep on the sofa or lying on a beach simply listening to crashing waves. Leisurely exercise is also an option, be it a stroll through the park or a hike through the woods. Then there are mind- and body-focused activities like yoga, meditation, or a massage.

However you choose to spend your mental health break, be sure to avoid anything that might remind you of why you needed the break in the first place. Try to abstain from social media, binge-watching TV dramas, drinking or overeating, and friends and family members who might make you feel worse, even if it’s unintentional.

A mental health break could make a world of difference in your attitude when you return to work. However, if stressors immediately return and work again becomes overwhelming, it might be time to use the search tools found on WithTherapy to make an appointment with a licensed psychologist or therapist.

Find a Therapist to Help Deal With Mental Health Issues at Work

Ready to find support and address your challenges? Schedule with a therapist uniquely matched to you.

You’re at the heart of a reimagined therapist search platform.

Find Your Healthier WithTherapy

Let’s Get Started

Find a Therapist to Help Deal With Mental Health Issues at Work