You may have done it yourself.  Personally, I’m a fan: mental health days.  The point is to relieve stress and restore wellness.  My anecdotal experience, from working with clients for nearly a decade, is that most of these days are not spent recharging and instead may actually increase anxiety.  But there are ways to change that and make the most of your time off.  First, let’s start with some of the hidden reasons people take days off work.

Mental Health Days

1.  Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Stress, anxiety and depression go by many code names: busy, worry, sad, irritated, down, unhappy, antisocial.  Symptoms have a variety of sources and intensities.  Regardless of whether it rises to the level of an actual diagnosis, the lived experience of people is very real and affects each person in different ways.  It is context specific – meaning, there’s a bunch of stuff going on in your life, you have your own unique history and your own lens or worldview.  One person may experience an event and, while stressed out, rolls with the punches while another person, on paper, experiences the same event and anxiety and depression symptoms leave them bedridden.  The mental health day is a form of coping.

2. Bullying by Coworkers and Bosses

People can be cruel.  Even though as a psychologist, I can understand the reasons why coworkers, bosses or other people in authority positions emotionally or verbally abuse others, it doesn’t excuse this behavior.  One of my clients made an excellent point recently by discerning the differences between feelings and behavior – all feelings are valid but we must express them responsibly.  Being bullied at work feels so personal because the bully targets you and specific things about you.  It creates a toxic workplace environment for everyone.  Oftentimes, it is hard to prove  the harassment and the behavior flies under the radar, leaving you feeling powerless.  It can show up as favoritism, inconsistent enforcement of the rules, overly harsh punishment for minor infractions, or pitting employees against one another.  The worst case scenarios are with bosses who abuse their power.  The employee is stuck because he or she needs something from the bully and fears retribution, large and small.  The mental health day is a form of avoidance and escape.

3. Poor Work/Life Balance

As a GenX’er, it was drilled into me to value work/life balance.  Even though I love my work, I love it even more when I’ve been away from it.  I’ve also done a fair amount of processing with clients in regard to why they are unhappy at work.  One reason is often too much work or responsibility for the role or position.  Some people, departments, or titles become the ‘catch-all’ task collectors.  Another person comes up with a new project and because there’s no specific person to assign it to, it gets passed to you.  Anxiety, stress and guilt can push you to ‘overfunction’ and your task list grows.  Without even realizing it, your 40-hour a week job has now grown to 70-hours but you’re still hustling to make it work.  The mental health day is a form of balance and regulation.

4. Disengagement and Burnout

Do you feel the same about your job as when you started?  Do you like your work?  Are you excited about new projects?  If not, you may have learned everything you can and the job has run its course.  Some companies do better with continually training and challenging their employees – recognizing growth and promoting talents.  However, most companies are content to let you go about your job and management is hands-off.  Being at the stage where work is no longer engaging leads to apathy and burnout.  Who wants to spend significant chunks of their day being bored?  It’s a better use of your time to be at home, doing what matters more. The mental health day is a form of regrouping and future planning.

5. Child or Elder Care Issues

Parents with rigid schedules pay a penalty if their child needs them.  The same goes with caretakers of elderly parents or chronically ill family members.  When faced with going to work or taking off for a sick child and a loved one’s doctor’s appointment, it’s not a Sophie’s Choice – family needs come first.  Companies with rigid leave policies create stress and additional costs for their employees.  The lack of flexibility and focus on hours over task completion creates low morale.  It’s true that some service companies depend on timeliness and that some employees would abuse a flexible policy.  But there’s a tradeoff and the determining the most flexibility for a business can build a culture of mutual trust, retain valuable employees, and reduce absenteeism costs.  The mental health day is a form of scheduling priorities.

Better Coping Skills

  • Consider therapy from a psychologist or counselor for help with stress, anxiety or depression.  Just sorting thoughts can provide relief.  If you need more significant time off, you may qualify for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which can protect your job.
  • If you’re being harassed or bullied on the job, it is essential to document incidents.  Keep a running list with dates, times, and descriptions of events as they occur.  Stick to the objective facts whenever possible.  When you feel ready, consult with the company’s HR or a person in authority if possible.  You may be able to ask questions anonymously before making a formal report.
  • Life is one long, endless to-do list.  You’ll always have tasks on your plate.  Consider chunking them by category, priority, or life compartment.  Think about the real consequence of NOT doing it (or doing it now).  Can it be put on the backburner?
  • If work has become a bore, consider new opportunities.  This might mean moving to a different position or seeking out a new career.  Perhaps there’s a training you have been eyeing that will increase your skill set?
  • Many companies are recognizing the need for flexible leave policies as well as work from home opportunities.  If your company requires you stick to a rigid schedule and this doesn’t work for your family, it might be time for a change.

In all of these examples, the essential missing quality is the focus on mental health.  Often my clients will report taking time off to cope and end up feeling desperate and more anxious.  They are home but unable to relax – ruminating and feeling guilty.  A mental health day ideally is meant to be restorative.  When taking time off is the last resort, it’s a sign that you’re not dealing with the bigger issue.  The result is a conflict of cross purposes – the intention to care for yourself is there but it’s just a bandaid for what’s underneath.  If you’re stuck in a loop and don’t know your next steps, you may need more help such as the assistance of a personal consulting service.

What do you think?  Can you relate?  Why is there still a stigma on taking mental health days?  Do you take days to restore your sanity?

Also published on Medium.