How to Take a Mental Health Day

When there’s a fever involved, most people don’t hesitate to take a sick day off of work so they can take care of themselves. Similarly, when a COVID test comes up positive, that’s a sign not to go into the office and take the day off to rest. When it comes to mental health, though, there’s no thermometer or test that tells you, or “justifies” when you need to take a mental health day, which means that you need to rely on your own sense of well-being to understand when you need a day off.

Mental health days help us recover our energy and avoid reaching a state of burnout. They are a healthy way to press pause on the pressures of the workplace and instead focus time and energy on completing self-care activities. Mental health days aren’t a sign of weakness, nor do they need to be earned. They are a proactive way to make sure that you’re feeling your best so you can continue to work in the future.

What is a mental health day?

A mental health day is a day taken off of your normal responsibilities of school or work. Most mental health days aim to reduce the number of responsibilities within the day so you can rest, relax, and recuperate. Mental health days are spent actively combatting stress, and the goal of taking a mental health day is to come back feeling energized, motivated, and whole.

Without taking a mental health day, you might be at higher risk of burnout, which is an intense experience of stress and fatigue. Signs of burnout include a short attention span, feelings of dread or hopelessness, feeling stuck, headaches or stomach aches, emotional outbursts, and more.

According to Zencare therapist Luree Benjamin, LMFTA, a mental health day is a day where “one intentionally unplugs from activities that are stressful and taxing to one’s mind, morale, or body.” She continues to describe mental health days as breaks from the “should do” list as well as a break from electronic devices, social media, news outlets, and anything else that can be emotionally draining. This might include taking the day off from talking to friends or family — even if they generally bring you emotional support, you might find a day off to be helpful to recharge for future conversations or interactions. On the other hand, taking the day off from talking to people who make you feel unworthy, ashamed, and guilty can also be a really helpful act of self-compassion and a good way to spend a mental health day.

Why is it important to take mental health days off work?

Taking mental health days off of school or work are important for a number of reasons. Just like physical health, when you aren’t feeling very well, you can’t perform life activities to the fullest degree, which can further exacerbate feelings of stress or fatigue. If you don’t take time off your feet to heal from an injury like an ankle sprain, then chances are you won’t be able to walk or run without pain for many months. It’s the same with mental health — if you don’t take the time to process through difficult emotions and give yourself rest, you might find yourself struggling to manage your emotions in situations that normally wouldn’t faze you.

Taking a mental health day can make the difference between experiencing severe emotional distress and being able to cope with stressors. Studies have shown that for those in the workforce, the mental health of employees is a vital determinant in overall health and can contribute to physiological issues such as blood pressure issues, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions as well. Poor mental health of employees directly affects businesses, where there’s an increase of human error, lower productivity, higher turnover rates and poor performance overall. Providing employees and students the opportunity to proactively take care of their mental health through the usage of mental health days means that these people can maintain their productivity, keep their stress levels manageable and continue being valuable to their employers or educational institutions.

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How can I take a mental health day?

How you take a mental health day depends on the policies and culture of your school or workplace. Unfortunately, some settings are more understanding than others. Some people find the fear of asking for a mental health day a barrier to actually taking a mental health day — which can only lead to further stress.

If you find that your workplace doesn’t have a mental health day policy, you can simply call out sick if you have sick days. Calling out sick or requesting the day off for health reasons doesn’t require you to go into more detail, and this means that you can use your sick leave for the purposes of a mental health day. This might be particularly helpful for days where you abruptly need to take the day off because you’ve woken up to terrible news and you need to process, or you’ve been experiencing panic attacks out of the blue, for example.

Similarly, you can use your PTO for mental health days. When you do this, you can plan your mental health days in advance, which might be useful after the wrap of a particularly stressful presentation or project deadline where you know you’ll need mental rest afterward.

If neither of these options work for you, you can always engage in a mental health day on a day that you already have off of work, such as a holiday or even a weekend. This option means that you don’t need to ask for the day off or wait for your manager to approve the day off, you can instead focus on planning out exactly what you want to do with your day of self-care.

If you’re comfortable, talking to your manager about mental health days can be a helpful way of setting yourself up for days off in the future. You might proactively tell them the signs that you look for when you’re on your way to burnout, and ask that if you start to notice those signs, that you can take a mental health day away from the office. You can also work with them to look ahead in the calendar and identify the days that would be good to take off of work, particularly if your team depends on your work each day. Lastly, you might consider framing mental health days as not being one-off instances — rather, they’re part of an ongoing self-care checklist that promotes feelings of well-being and sustainability in the workplace.

What should I do on my mental health day?

Once you’ve decided to take a mental health day and have communicated your absence to school or work, it’s time to plan out your mental health day. What activities can you do on a mental health day? The answer will depend on what you like to do and what helps you destress!

When supporting clients, Luree Benjamin, LMFTA, encourages them to “avoid anything that is draining, strenuous, or work-related such as answering emails or phone calls, homework, or chores that you have been putting off that would require physical or mental exertion.” This is because these activities can be harmful to your mental health, and instead your mental health day would benefit from taking a break from anything that doesn’t help you relax.

Effective mental health days begin with getting a good night’s sleep and setting the body up with what it needs to feel safe and content throughout the day. This includes getting adequate nutrition, both enough food to feel satisfied and nourishing food for sustained energy levels.

What comes next is up to you! Here are some ideas for what to do on your mental health day:

Whatever activity you pick, it’s important that it brings you a sense of relaxation and a reduction in stress. These activities are meant to help you process through your emotions, especially emotions like stress or exhaustion. These activities are best when they bring you joy and help you clear your mind — a successful mental health day is one where school or work doesn’t even cross your mind!

Reflect on the day

At the end of your mental health day, reflecting on the day can be a useful practice to ensure that you get everything you can from your break. When you wind down your day, think about how it felt to take the day off and spend it taking care of yourself. Some people find it helpful to journal about the experience, which might help you understand the restorative effect that the day had.

Practicing gratitude can also be an effective way to reflect on the day. You might express gratitude about any of the following elements of your mental health day:

After a day off, you might find that you feel refreshed or at least on the road to feeling refreshed. It might take a few days, however, to feel completely rested. This can be particularly helpful when you feel like you’re headed towards burnout.

Taking mental health days is part of a practice of self-care and self-compassion. It’s an important element to a healthy life, even if your busy schedule only allows you to take a mental health half day. As Luree Benjamin, LMFTA, suggests, mental health days are meant to be rejuvenating mentally, emotionally, and physically.

If you need help planning or executing effective mental health days, working with a therapist can be a good next step. With your therapist, you might explore different ways to rest or relax to find the one that works best for you. A therapist can also help you identify the signs pointing you towards the need for a mental health day, or to process through the restorative effects that you experienced after taking a day off for mental health. To find a therapist that can help you, check out the Zencare therapist directory and search for the perfect therapist for you in your area.