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The Value of A Mental Health Day, And How To Talk To Your Boss About Taking One

Molly Povich  |  August 15, 2019

Newsflash: You need a mental health day — we all do. Here’s a look at what they are, and how to ask your boss when it’s time for you to take one. 

$1 trillion. That’s the amount that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy every year, according to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

In case you hadn’t noticed, we are not machines. Simple enough, yet this idea is easily obscured in a culture where the prevailing message seems to be: Do more! Produce more! For someone suffering mentally and emotionally, the best message they can hear from their workplace isn’t: You need to be okay so that you can be productive, but rather: You deserve to feel okay because you’re a person. 

Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are shown to better reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains, according to WHO. And while this is certainly excellent, is fueling the economy really the biggest reason we should care about the relationship between mental health and the workplace? 

“In trying to make a case for why employers need to invest dollars in mental health, the case is most often predicated on numbers and productivity,” says Melody Wilding, Licensed Master Social Worker and workplace performance coach for women. “It can be pretty dehumanizing.” In reality, people experiencing meaning and purpose in their jobs is far more predictive of them staying in their jobs longer, performing better, and having better performing teams, Wilding says. 

In other words, to be meaningfully invested and present in your work requires that you feel mentally and emotionally and balanced, she asserts. And sometimes, in order to do that, we’ve got to take a mental health day. 

What Is A Mental Health Day? 

Business psychologist Dr. Camille Preston, Ph.D, makes a distinction between two different types of mental health days, both of which should be honored. Some people with diagnosable mental disorders must take mental health days to give themselves the time and space to cope with the symptoms of their condition. But others who aren’t necessarily struggling with mental illness may also need time away from the workplace so that they can refuel and reconnect with their best self, Preston says. “I think a lot of times we think mental health is just about mental disorders, but it’s really about mental wellbeing, too,” notes Wilding.

When we have something like the flu, we take sick days to bring our physical body up to 100%, Wilding says. “A mental health day is exactly the same, but it’s for your mind, and your wellbeing — for your focus and your energy.” While mental and emotional factors can feel less tangible than strictly physical ones, they aren’t any less real when it comes to your overall health. 

When Should You Take One?

The short answer is: When you feel like you need one.  “A lot of times we don’t realize that mentally and emotionally we need that type of maintenance just as we do physically.” says Wilding. “We go to the gym to work our bodies out and stay healthy, but we need to have that same mental and emotional fitness to keep ourselves in good condition.”  Sometimes, we may not even know it’s time for us to take a mental health day. If you find yourself being overly snappy, judgy or making frequent mistakes in your work, then it may be time for you to take a step back, says Preston. 

Asking Your Boss For A Mental Health Day

Increasingly popular in the workplace is paid time off (PTO), a policy that lumps vacation, sick time, and personal time into a single bank of days for employees to use as they deem necessary. Wilding says PTO gives employees more freedom and privacy: the days are yours to take for any purpose, and you don’t need to inform your employer what that purpose is. 

But if your company doesn’t have PTO, how can you go about getting your mental health day? What, exactly, do you say to your boss? 

You are the best judge of that. “It depends on the culture of your workplace. It depends on your relationship with your manager. It depends on your own personal comfort level. People have different boundaries and thresholds around how much they want to disclose. So I would check in with yourself on all of those things,” says Wilding.

Preston recommends reading your corporate HR policy, and framing your time-off request so that it’s within those bounds. If you know you’ll need the day off several days advance, Preston says she’d use a script to this effect:  “I’ll need a day off on X date to take care of my health. I want to make sure you’re set up for success while I’m gone, so here’s a list of everything that will need to be taken care of in my absence. Can you help me provide you with anything else you might need?” 

With this, you’re addressing your obligations, but you’re also acknowledging your need to take care of yourself, Preston says. 

Unfortunately, mental and emotional states can’t always be planned for (annoying, I know), so you won’t always know your needs in advance. If you suddenly find yourself having to communicate your absence, remember that you’re not obligated to relay details. “You really don’t have to over-explain and justify why you’re doing this,” says Wilding. “You can explain that you’ll be taking a day out of the office to tend to some personal matter, and leave it at that.”

If you have the kind of relationship with your boss where you two communicate openly about health issues, you can frame your day off as a win-win situation for all parties involved:  Your improved mental state will improve the quality of your work going forward. Emphasizing this shows your boss you want to perform at your peak, and that you are taking the initiative to ask for what you need to achieve that.

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