Mental health days: What, when and why you shouldn’t hesitate to take one

April 21, 2022 - 16 min read

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What is a mental health day?

The benefits of taking mental health days

When should I take a mental health day?

How to ask for a mental health day

Planned vs. unplanned mental health days

How to prepare for a mental health day

How to use mental health days

Everyone’s familiar with the symptoms that indicate an oncoming cold. We know that if we’re not feeling well, it’s a good idea to take time off to care for our physical health.

But many of us don’t notice the symptoms that our mental and emotional health needs some care.

Much like your physical health, taking a day off to care for your mental health can help prevent the onset of more severe symptoms. But due to the stigma and lack of education around mental health, many of us aren’t comfortable asking for time off when we know we need it.

Learn more about mental health days, why they are important, when you should take one, and how to make the most of your time off.

What is a mental health day?

When we’re sick, we might want to be alone, or we might want to be taken care of. We might be hungry or have no appetite. We could be restless or exhausted. The same is true for mental health. Everyone will have different needs, but it’s important to honor them so that you can get back to feeling energized and optimistic.

Because you’re not physically ill, it may feel weird to go for a walk, see friends, or spend time reading a book when you “should be” working. But there’s no right way to take a mental health day — just like there’s no “right” way to take a sick day.

The goal is to give yourself what you need so that you’ll be more focused and productive when you do return to work. 

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The benefits of taking mental health days

The benefits of taking mental health days often stem from what you need most at that time. Say you’ve been buried in work for months, for example, and are close to burning out. A mental health day can offer some rest and give you time to reflect on where to set your boundaries or say no at work.

These are some benefits you could get from mental health days:

  • Reduced anxiety and stress
  • Time to relax
  • Space to reflect
  • An opportunity to reset

There’s also evidence that taking time away from work helps you be more productive when you return.

When should I take a mental health day?

When it comes to health and well-being, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure. We’ve all been reminded that taking a day to rest when we first start to feel sick can help us recover faster. The same is true for mental health. When you notice that you’re feeling a little bit “off,” consider taking a day to recharge.

Noticing these signs is really important if you have a mental health condition like depression and anxiety. Certain symptoms can indicate that a more severe reaction is near. For example, feeling unmotivated one day can be a precursor to a depressive episode. Feeling irritable and overwhelmed can be a sign of an impending panic attack.

However, since they’re not dependent on physical health, you can also schedule mental health days into your regular routine. Consider designating a single day out of the month or even a few hours every weekend to care for your mental health. Taking this kind of proactive approach to your mental and emotional well-being is a cornerstone of mental fitness. 

At BetterUp, we call these days Inner Work® days, and we take them regularly — both individually and as a company. Setting aside time for Inner Work® allows us to do the things that fill our cups. It makes efforts in other areas of life more satisfying and more sustainable.

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How to ask for a mental health day

Your company may have rules about what you’re allowed to use your sick time for. However, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act and HIPPA, you don’t have to disclose your reasons for taking sick time. If your workplace isn’t particularly friendly to the idea of a mental health day, it’s OK to just tell them that you’re taking a sick day. “Personal days” are also acceptable to use for mental health reasons.

But if you feel comfortable sharing, you may be doing a service for yourself and the team if you’re honest about taking time for your mental wellness. Sharing that you’re taking time to prioritize your mental health can inspire and open the way for other team members to do the same.

If you’re a manager or in any leadership position, you should know that what you do is more important than what you say. This is especially true when it comes to paid time off.

Being upfront about taking care of your mental health promotes a culture of mental fitness at your workplace. It will also make it easier to take a mental health day in the future. After all, there are only so many times you can get a flat tire before people start asking questions. 

Disclosure is entirely up to you, and there are generally no legal ramifications to taking sick time once approved by your manager. Your PTO is a part of your compensation, and you’re entitled to use it.

Planned vs. unplanned mental health days

Mental health days usually fall into one of two categories: planned and unplanned. Unplanned mental health days happen when we wake up “sick” — the days when we realize that we’re just not in the mental place to work. We may already be in a crisis, whether it’s the onset of a depressive episode, anxiety, or something else. Those are the days when we “call out.” 

The second kind of mental health day is a planned day off, and it falls under preventive care. We either anticipate that we’ll need a break after a stressful time, or we’re in the habit of taking regular days off to recharge. Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to plan for your mental health so that emergency days off are the exception and not the rule. It’s much tougher to recover than it is to prevent.

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How to prepare for a mental health day

Preparing to take time off looks different for each person. Your circumstances will likely inform a lot of your preparation. That said, there here are three helpful steps to get the most out of mental health days:

  1. Determine what you need
  2. Talk to your boss
  3. Plan your day...or don't

1. Determine what you need

No matter which type of mental health day you find yourself taking, the first thing to do is determine what you need for the day. Do you want to catch up on sleep, reconnect with your hobbies, or recover from burnout

What you decide you need will determine what you do with the time. You might even decide to set some “ground rules” for your mental health day. Here are a few ideas:

  • Consider detoxing from email and social media.
  • Do some mild exercise, like yoga, walking, or stretching.
  • Make sure you eat something nourishing and drink plenty of water.
  • Talk to somebody, like a friend, loved one, or therapist. 
  • Do not connect with work — it will still be there tomorrow.
  • Make it up as you go along. There are no rules unless you decide there are. 

Decide if you’re taking a planned or unplanned day

If you need a mental health day yesterday, you may not have time to plan it out. But if you can schedule one in, try to plan out your workload so that you aren’t fretting over it while you’re off. That way, you’ll be able to disconnect and have an easier time catching up on work when you get back.

Talk to your boss

Regardless of your company’s policies, it’s essential that you communicate the time off before the workday or as soon as possible. Talk to your boss and inform them of your upcoming mental health (or sick) day, depending on your company’s policy.

Plan your day… or don’t

Mental health days are for you to do what you need to take care of yourself. If you want to plan out some activities, you can. If you’d rather play the day by ear, you can do that, too. The important thing is to take actions that support your efforts to maintain mental health.

How to use mental health days

Recharge physically

If you feel physically drained, start with your self-care practices. Turn off your alarm, eat healthy meals, and drink plenty of water. A short walk or moderate exercise can help boost your energy levels. 

Recover from overwhelm

If you’re overwhelmed with work, try meditating. For your mental health day (and maybe long-term), delete your work email and Slack from your phone. If you can, leave your phone at home and go for a walk in nature.

If separating from your phone makes you feel a little anxious, try doing things that require device-free time. You could get a massage, go to the movies, or head to the beach.

Take care of your mental health

  • If you’re feeling depressed, be gentle with yourself. Connect with a friend and spend the day doing whatever you love to do. Schedule an appointment with a therapist or counselor and let them know that you’ve been feeling low.
  • If you’re feeling anxious, write down everything you need to accomplish. Pick one or two things to tackle to boost your sense of accomplishment. Go through your calendar and schedule the other items on the list. 

Disconnect from social media

It might be tempting to spend your mental health day scrolling through social feeds, but it may not give your brain the respite it needs. And since social media has been connected to increased anxiety and depression, it could leave you feeling worse at the end of the day.

Turning your notifications off and trying a digital detox gives you the space away from social media (and your work email) to recuperate.

Get back to basics

Be sure to take care of your basic needs, since dehydration, exhaustion, and hunger mimic anxiety symptoms. Besides, everything usually looks better after a sandwich or a nap. After that, ask for help — or simply decide not to do one or two of the things on the list (scandalous, I know — but very freeing).

Take time to reflect

A mental health day can be the perfect opportunity to do some Inner Work® and reflection. If you feel like writing, you can pick up a journal (or notepad) and jot down your thoughts. If you’re feeling particularly anxious, you can try anxiety journaling to acknowledge all of the things causing you stress. 

Take time to reflect on how you got to where you are. Note your accomplishments, what lead you to take a mental health day, and any good habits you want to start moving forward.

This doesn’t just have to be within your career. Your goals can also be related to other aspects of your life, such as improving your sleep hygiene or making more nutritious choices. You could want to connect with more people in your community or reconnect with old friends. 

Whichever goals you choose, make sure they’re attainable and interesting, so you’re in a better place to accomplish them. If you're still not sure what to do with your mental health days, find some ideas in this article. 

The bottom line on mental health days

Your mental health care is an important part of your health care. It might feel easier and “more productive” to push through and tackle your to-do list when you’re overwhelmed. But if there’s one thing that’s true, it’s that life will always have stressors. If we wait until everything is perfect to take a mental health day, we’ll be waiting a long time.

Taking a mental health day doesn’t mean that you have “mental health issues.” It means that you’re learning how to check in and respond to those internal cues that tell you when you need a break. After all, “pushing through” can be a habit. But taking care of yourself can be one, too.

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Published April 21, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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