Everyone agrees that you should stay home when you’re not feeling well. (In fact, your co-workers will probably appreciate it.) But for some reason, being “sick” only counts when you have an injury or the flu.
That’s a harmful misconception, especially because mental health problems can be just dangerous to our health as a virus. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder are the third most common reason people ages 18 to 44 are hospitalized. Mental health illnesses also increase our odds of developing another chronic medical condition and can even shorten our life spans, sometimes by decades.
Still, the stigma of taking a mental health day continues to linger: “I think sometimes we equate it with ‘playing hooky,’” says Amy Morin, LCSW, a lecturer at Northeastern University and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.
It's time to change that mindset and boost mental health awareness. For starters, dealing with anxiety and depression doesn’t make you weak—it makes you normal. According to the Mental Health Foundation, depression is the predominant mental health issue worldwide, and their latest report (from 2014) shows that 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over have symptoms of anxiety or depression. It’s a problem that can interfere with everything, from work performance to parenting abilities.
“I encourage people to think of a mental health day as they think of a visit to a primary care doctor,” says Ken Yeager, PhD, the director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Maintaining your mental health will allow you to be the best you can be.”
3 ways to take a guilt-free mental health day
1. Take (the right) time off.
The goal of taking a mental health day is to lower your stress levels and come back to work (or school or even parenting) feeling stronger and healthier. Before you call in, think about why you need to take a break. Are you trying to avoid your boss? Duck out of a confrontation with a pushy teacher? If the answer is yes, you may want to reschedule, says Morin. “Those types of situations don’t necessarily make a mental health day particularly helpful,” she says. “You’re still facing the same problems when you get back.”
On the other hand, if you’re increasingly distracted at work—say, you’re worried about money and can’t stop thinking about your bills, or you’re struggling to power through a project—those are signs that you may need to take off a day, says Morin.
“Ask yourself if you’re able to function at your job that day,” she says. “If you’re going to be physically present but mentally absent, or if your mood is such that you’re going to be worse off,” then you might want to stay at home.
2. Be productive.
“Taking a mental health day is not the same as taking a vacation day,” says Yeager. “This is a day that you take off with the awareness that you’re burned out and not functioning at your best.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all schedule, he says, so you may need to experiment with what can help you recover. For some people, that means catching up on sleep; for others, it may mean taking a yoga class or scheduling an appointment with a doctor or therapist.
If you need a break from your childcare duties, Morin suggests dropping the kids off at grandma’s and booking a massage or grabbing a drink with your friends. “Think about how you stay connected to who you are as an individual, outside of being a parent,” she says.
You could also use this time to tackle the nagging tasks on your to-do list. If your finances are stressing you out, try making a budget; if your house is a mess, carve out a few hours to clean the bathroom and do laundry.
What you shouldn’t do, says Morin, is nothing. (Or worse, binge-watch TV while scrolling through your friends’ vacation photos.) “I have yet to meet anyone who’s said, ‘I spent 16 hours in bed under the covers, and now I feel great,’” she says. “In fact, that tends to make us feel worse. If you stay home, you should do something that will make you feel better, not just momentarily but for days or months in the future.”
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3. Don’t overload yourself.
Taking a mental health day should help you solve a problem—not add to your guilt and anxiety. “People beat themselves up when they think they didn’t use their day wisely, or the day went by so fast that they didn’t get everything done,” says Morin. But you don’t have to cross a dozen tasks off your to-do list to feel as if you’ve accomplished something, she says.
Instead of packing your schedule with chores, try to tackle some of your biggest stressors—whether that’s sorting through your bills, going to a spa, or grabbing some alone time. “We tend to overestimate how quickly we can finish a project,” says Morin. “Get one or two things done, and then enjoy the rest of the day.”
And don’t worry about feeling guilty about taking time off: “The guilt really sets in when you don’t accomplish what you want to,” says Morin. “Once you feel better, the guilt goes away.”