How to know when to take a mental health day

Signs to watch for and tips for taking the time you need to recharge
Published September 29, 2021 | Updated November 3, 2022

We’ve all been there. You’re stressed at work, feeling burnt out, maybe even physically sick, but you feel like you can’t take time off because your workplace is understaffed, and you know everybody else is just as burnt out as you, or because you feel like your work will pile up if you’re gone for a day.

If you’re experiencing anything like this, it might be time to take a mental health day. Here’s some advice for how to do that from Joyce Marter, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life.

Signs you need a mental health day
  • Emotional dysregulation or interpersonal conflict: You find yourself having waves of emotion in the workplace that you are finding difficult to manage, such as moments of tearfulness, sadness, overwhelm, irritability, becoming easily frustrated or impatient.
  • Decrease in motivation or apathy: You are finding it difficult to complete your tasks and find yourself caring less about your work responsibilities.
  • Personal issues that are spilling over into work: You are dealing with a breakup, health issue or life event that is making it difficult to concentrate or function at work.
  • Exhaustion or depletion: Unlike cell phones, we don’t get a red bar alert that we are running on fumes. We need to develop the capability of recognizing when our energy levels are taking a serious dip and nip that problem in the bud before it becomes clinical burnout.
  • Decrease in productivity or quality of work or increase in mistakes: This can be a sign that your system is on overload and you need to take a day to reboot yourself.

“We often wait until we are burned out before realizing we need a break,” Marter says. “This is because many of us do not prioritize our mental well-being and fulfill all our responsibilities at home, work and in our relationships before taking care of ourselves. Mental well-being must be prioritized so we can maintain mental and physical health and function to the best of our ability personally and professionally. If we don’t regularly take care of our mental health, we put ourselves at risk for depression, anxiety, relationship conflict, job performance problems and impulsive decisions like quitting your job.”

Click here for more of Marter’s tips on how to prevent burnout.

Benefits of taking a mental health day

  • It’s a remedy for the disease of being busy – a chance to focus on your own well-being instead of work.
  • It’s an opportunity to restore and reboot your mind, body, and spirit.
  • You can recalibrate your nervous system with a break.

Marter knows speaking to your manager about mental health and missing a day’s work can feel scary, but she says the benefits outweigh the costs.

“You only have to share as much or little as you feel safe and comfortable sharing. You have a legal right to use your benefits. Taking a mental health day is an aspect of self-care which demonstrates self-love,” she says, adding that prioritizing self-care and setting healthy limits in relationships isn’t selfish; it’s essential.

Taking a mental health day proactively, meaning before things get really difficult, can also offer preventive benefits, including:

  • Prevention of clinical burnout, depression, anxiety, substance abuse issues, relationship conflict, and lowered productivity.
  • Improved mental clarity and perspective, increased energy and coping skills, reduced errors, increased productivity, less relationship conflict.
How to take one without feeling guilty

“Depending on the psychological safety of your workplace (how safe and comfortable you feel about talking openly about mental health without fear of retaliation), you may decide not to reveal the nature of your day off,” Marter says.

She suggests planning ahead and booking your day off in advance. You may want to consider whether adding a day to extend your weekend would feel best, or whether a midweek break would help you more. Set up your out-of-office email response in advance so you can unplug on your day off.

Marter also advises being honest about your reasoning and being firm with your boundaries and the fact that you do indeed need the day off.

“Let go of undue guilt,” says Marter. “Taking care of yourself is essential to you being a good employee and functioning your best at work. You can look at your benefit plan and decide whether to take it as a personal day (no explanation required) or as a sick day (in which you could say you need a day off to address some health issues, which is true but not going into the nitty gritty details.”

Here are some conversation tips from Marter:

“I’m requesting Monday the 12th off to address some health issues.”

  • “Is everything okay?”

“Yes, but I need to take care of my health to be my best at work.”

  • Practise healthy assertiveness that demonstrates respect for self and others.
  • Avoid passive-aggressive statements about workload or work conditions. This should be a separate conversation at a different time.
How to rest and recharge on your mental health day

Making the most of your mental health day will help you feel rested and recharged. Marter suggests the following to help you feel your best:

  • Prioritize sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise, and play (hobbies and healthy leisure). Practise mindfulness e.g. yoga and meditation
  • Unplug from technology
  • Spend time in nature
  • Access support – this can be through a friend, family member or therapist

There are also some activities you should avoid when taking a mental health day, Marter adds:

  • Self-harm disguised as self-care, such as binge watching TV, overdrinking or abusing substances or compulsive shopping.
  • Overworking on projects for home or work in an effort to catch up.
  • Posting on social media that you were out and about having fun while taking a day off from work.