We’ve all been there: exhausted, emotionally drained, and feeling completely wiped after a long day at work. Everyone has bad days now and then. But when you experience ongoing job stress, it could be affecting your mental health—both short term and long term. Workplace burnout has serious negative consequences on our bodies and minds, as the American Psychological Association points out that it can lead to depression and anxiety. Research also shows that job stress can lead to sleep problems, digestive issues, and muscle pain and can even affect your workouts. Simply put, too much stress isn’t good for anyone. So, how do you take care of yourself when you’re overworked and overwhelmed? Taking a mental health day is a good start. Here, we explain what a mental health day is, how to take one, and how it may help you.
What is a mental health day?
According to Carol Bernstein, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and neurology at NYU Langone Health, there’s no official definition of a mental health day, but it generally refers to when a person takes a day off from work if they’re feeling emotionally exhausted or unwell.
“People use [a mental health day] when they’re feeling that it’s not a sick day in the official sense—they’re not home with a fever or the flu—but feel that their emotional state of mind requires that they take a day off from work,” she explains.
Is a mental health day different than a standard sick day? Many workplaces may not have policies around mental health days, but Bernstein says they shouldn’t be treated differently. “I would prefer to see a circumstance where mental health is considered in the same way as physical health … because it is part of our physical health,” she says. “Really, if your emotional state of mind is not well—for lack of a better way to put it—then it should be viewed the same way as if you had a headache and didn’t want to go to work.
“Mental illnesses are the same as other illnesses. It’s just because of the stigma attached to them and because they are disorders of how we think and feel, people have a hard time understanding [them].”
How do you know if you need a mental health day?
Sometimes we would prefer to stay in bed and binge watch reality TV rather than head into the office. But playing hooky for fun is different than actually needing a break from work. Bernstein says there are no set criteria for taking a mental health day. But, symptoms of burnout are an indication that you need time off.
“When people are feeling overwhelmed, overworked, angry, and irritable; can’t concentrate; have difficulty sleeping [or] difficulty with their appetite; have challenges in their relationships with others in the workplace—all of those things would suggest to me that someone is under some type of emotional stress,” she says.
People with anxiety or depression may be more prone to emotional stress. However, you don’t have to be diagnosed with a disorder to take a mental health day. Anyone can experience job burnout. Plus, personal factors outside the workplace—such as a death in the family or divorce—can impact your mental state, too. A good barometer? Bernstein says if you can’t function emotionally the same way you couldn’t function if you had a fever, take a day off.
How do you ask an employer for a mental health day?
Because mental health is an aspect of physical health, Bernstein suggests simply telling your boss you aren’t feeling well and need a day off—especially if it’s only a day or two. “I think that that’s a better way than the vernacular of ‘mental health day’ in the sense that people feel they need some rest from work. It should really be the same as any other medical condition,” she explains.
However, if you have a mental health issue that requires ongoing or longer-term accommodation, it’s important to let your employer know what’s going on. “You always have to make the case for accommodation if you want that,” Bernstein says. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your direct boss, try reaching out to your company’s HR department for support. Depending on your workplace’s policies, you may be required to provide a doctor’s note. (The National Institute of Mental Health has immediate resources to help you.)
How can mental health days help?
Think of your body like a car. If you don’t maintain it properly, it won’t run as efficiently. If you neglect taking care of it over time, one day it might just break down. Mental health is the same.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. That’s a large chunk of the population, which means either you—or someone you know—will likely be affected at some point. By taking a day off work when you need it, you’re prioritizing your mental well-being and allowing yourself time to recharge. Plus, when people take care of their mental health, studies show they are more productive at work.
The Harvard Business Review writes that when people are overworked and exhausted, they are less productive, more likely to make errors, and more likely to experience health problems. So, if you feel that your work is suffering because of your mental state, you will benefit from a day off. Plus, the World Health Organization found that when companies take action to promote mental health in the workplace, employees tend to be happier and get more done. Mental health benefits everyone.
What should you do on a mental health day?
There’s no right or wrong way to spend a mental health day—except for doing more work. Take your day off to do something that will make you feel better, whether it’s sleeping in an extra hour (or two), going for a run, or making an appointment with your therapist. The point of the day is to prioritize your mental well-being, so don’t fill your schedule with back-to-back appointments.
How to Prevent Burnout at Work
A mental health day is a great way to rest and restore. But it’s extremely important to maintain your well-being every other day of the year—especially when work gets extra-stressful. Find things that bring you a sense of calm and peace, whether it’s daily yoga practice, taking a 15-minute walk at lunch, reading every night, or making time for friends. Doing things that make you feel happy outside of work is key. Bernstein points out that a good mental state also includes proper sleep, exercise, and eating well.
When it comes to your job, Bernstein says it’s important to be aware of how you’re feeling and behaving at work. “Do you feel tired or angry or irritable all the time? You need to assess yourself and whether you’re feeling connected to your work … [and if] you have meaning and joy in what you do,” she says.
If you’re emotionally unhappy or feeling the symptoms of burnout, you need to prioritize your mental health ASAP. If your workplace is the source of your unhappiness, it may be time to think about a change in the environment. Seek the help of a trained professional such as a life coach or therapist. And don’t be afraid to take time just for you. After all, maintaining your mental health is the key to doing good—and meaningful—work.