Brain break: taking a mental health day off

How to ask for a mental health day at work

The clock has nearly hit five o’clock, you’re on the edge of your seat ready to high-tail it home, but mentally you’ve been out-of-office since you arrived. You turned up for work, but when you think of how little you have to show for the day, a wave of guilt comes over you.

We’ve all had days like this, where we’re not physically ill enough to call in sick, but not well enough to be productive. It’s called presenteeism—you came to work, but anxiety, stress or personal problems got in the way of getting anything done—and it’s on the rise. A recent study revealed that 86% of employees have observed presenteeism in their company, up from just 26% in 2010. Chances are, if you find you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you feel your anxiety taking over, you may need to take a mental health day.

What is a mental health day?

One in four of us experiences at least one mental health problem in any given year, so you’re certainly not alone if you feel in need of a mental health day. This is your chance to take a breather and stop symptoms developing into a more serious problem. However, taking one carries stigma. You might feel guilty or uncomfortable admitting to your boss that it’s the reason behind your absence. Only 35% of employees who take a mental health day divulge the reason for their absence. This indicates that most employees are afraid to be honest about their mental state. While the attitude towards mental health is changing in the UK, there are still hurdles to cross before stress and anxiety are recognised as acceptable reasons to skip work in the same way as a physical illness.

Be reassured, however, that taking a sick day to deal with mental health problems is perfectly legal in the UK. There is no legal distinction between taking a day off to deal with stress or calling in sick with the flu. No matter how you approach the situation, you are within your rights to take a day off when it all becomes too much.

How can you take a mental health day off?

The culture around taking a mental health day is slowly changing, according to Yassen Soussi, HR director at creative agency 1000heads. Mental health awareness has definitely increased and the HR community has flagged this as an area for employers to focus on,” he said. “With an interconnected world and the 24-hour nature of social media and technology, people really do not get to switch off.”

However, not all employers have the same attitude. While some may be receptive to taking time off for mental health reasons, others might be more sceptical. Depending on your workplace culture, you might want to approach the situation differently.

  • If you are in an open and accepting workplace, it shouldn’t be an issue to take a mental health day. It’s up to you whether you wish to share the reason for your sick day with your employer, but if your boss is receptive, honesty can help.
    “People are encouraged to flag mental health issues or challenges in their life as employers will make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them and to support their employees in a real and meaningful fashion,” said Soussi.

  • There is a lot of pressure to put on a brave face and tough it out. For many of us, this mindset is ingrained in the way we view work. It is important to challenge that belief and learn how to put yourself first occasionally. You are not obliged to tell your employer that your sick day is in fact related to mental health issues in the same way as you are not obliged to give them the details of a physical illness. Only you know when stress and anxiety are starting to become overwhelming, and only you can decide when you need to take the time to deal with it.

Even if your employer seems to disapprove, remember presenteeism. It often means low productivity, a lack of motivation and making more mistakes than usual. In fact, World Health Organisation research has found that anxiety and depressive disorders cost more than a trillion dollars globally in lost productivity per year. We are only human, we don’t have a switch that allows us to turn off stress and anxiety when we walk into work. At the end of the day, both you and your employer are likely to benefit from a little time apart.

What should you do with your day off?

There is no one-size-fits-all plot for the perfect mental health day. There are a few things that are likely to refresh and relax your mind, but ultimately you are the one who knows best what you need to do to feel better.

  • Focus on yourself and yourself only. Don’t stress about your obligations to others or running errands.
  • Do whatever calms you down, whether it’s reading a book, going for a walk or even de-stressing with some Netflix.
  • Mental health days can allow time for self-care. Doing things to improve your physical wellbeing can work wonders for your mental state, too. Eating healthily and fitting in a bit of exercise can help you feel better by the end of the day.
  • If there is something troubling you that needs attention, don’t be afraid to meet up with close friends or family to talk it out, or book a session with a therapist.
  • If neither of these are possible, you can contact the Samaritans on their free helpline, 116 123, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. You don’t need to go through this alone.

Taking a mental health day can be hugely beneficial: just one day off might well put an end to weeks of presenteeism. Just like your body, your brain needs a break too.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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Madeleine Crean

Journalist

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