Wondering if it’s Time to Take a Mental Health Day?

Think about how calm and relaxed you feel when you return to work after a planned vacation, refreshed and ready to tackle the tasks on your to-do list. What if you could take a mini-break from your work responsibilities if you feel frazzled and overwhelmed during a particularly grueling week? It may sound too good to be true, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, an occasional mental health day – a single, unplanned day off that serves as a departure from your regular routine – may actually be just what you need to feel revitalized when you return to your job the following day, according to one expert.

“It absolutely can be very helpful to disconnect from work and take some time to tend to how you’re feeling and try to destress,” says Nicholas R. Forand, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist.

Even if you don’t think twice about taking a sick day for a migraine or food poisoning, you might feel uncomfortable calling out when you’re not in the right frame of mind, especially if you’ve never done it before. But don’t hesitate if you need a break and can financially afford to miss a day. A mental health day may help you distance from work-related pressures or combative colleagues when you’re veering toward work-related burnout. Tending to your mental health may also help you gain perspective and return to work with a better attitude.

“If you get totally immersed in the work, you can feel overwhelmed and irritable and have difficulty concentrating,” Forand says. “Work can take up too much of your life; it’s difficult to detach yourself from it. A mental health day can be useful for really trying to separate yourself from your work. That’s the biggest advantage.”

And while some employers are understanding of the fact that employees’ mental health should be a priority, the reality is that not all workplaces have caught up to that standard of thinking. “The expectations are that you grit your teeth and go to work every day,” Forand says. “But certain workplaces have recognized the need for folks to take some time to tend to their mental health outside of vacation days or sick days.”

Signs that you may need a mental health day

When you’re upset by your workload or personal interactions with co-workers, think about your normal reaction to a busy work week or work-related criticism to assess whether you’re feeling like your usual self. You may need a break from work if hostile feelings have been building up for a while, or if you’re more irritable, defensive, resentful, or combative than usual. A mental health day may also be helpful if work-related problems are affecting your ability to be productive on the job, or if they’re spilling over into your personal life.

“Look for difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, excessive worry about work, or maybe your performance starting to suffer,” Forand explains. “Or maybe you’re feeling demoralized. Those kinds of things are signs of stress, along with losing your positive attitude towards work and your co-workers.”

Maximizing your day off

When you take a mental health day, focus on relaxation and enjoyment so you can feel rejuvenated. Catching up on work or doing your laundry defeats the purpose. “You really want to separate yourself from work and from responsibilities as much as possible in order to empty your mind of the things that have been overwhelming you,” Forand says.

Fill your day off with fulfilling, relaxing activities that will help you recharge. Sleep in. Take a walk. Play with your dog. Go to the beach or a museum. Get a massage. Read a good book. Don’t overschedule your mental health day by trying to squeeze in too much. “I would caution people to resist that urge,” Forand says. “Do less instead of more. Focus on the quality of the activity and not the quantity.”

Benefits of a mental health day

A full day away from your job and its usual responsibilities may help to revive your spirits and improve your outlook about your career path, your co-workers, or an upcoming work project. “It really is a distancing or perspective-taking thing as much as it is about relaxing your body or catching up with sleep,” Forand says. “It allows you to return with a fresh perspective when you go back to work the next day.”

When used sparingly, a mental health day can be an important tool that helps you feel more emotionally balanced rather than flooded or defeated by work-related problems. “I don’t know of anyone who’s taken too many mental health days,” Forand says. “People should feel free to take the time if they need it.”