When Is a Mental Health Day Off From Work Justified?


An occasional break from the office is good for you. But if it becomes a habit, you should seek professional help.

Who among us hasn't needed a break from work? No matter how much you may love your job, sometimes you have to get away from it. You might put in for a vacation day or a personal day, depending on your company's policies and procedures. You might even call in sick. What you are really taking, though, is a mental health day off.

And there is nothing at all wrong with that. Although there probably isn't a mental health day policy at your office, calling it that has some value. "This is a vernacular term that helps people take the day off and not have to lie to themselves about feeling physically ill, and not feel guilty about being out and about," says Dr. Michelle B. Riba, a professor of psychiatry and associate director of the Comprehensive Depression Center at the University of Michigan. "What they call this may have more to do with what the company calls it. It has to be checked off in a box, so it's called a personal or sick day," says Riba, who is also co-medical director of the center's Workplace Mental Health Initiative. But calling it a mental health day "gives them the freedom to handle the day in a different way. They can take care of themselves or others if they are feeling overwhelmed or tired or stressed at work."

Self-care is, in fact, a critical component of sound mental health, says Alison Ross, a psychologist in New York City and an adjunct associate professor of psychology at City College of New York. She defines self-care as "taking a few moments on a regular basis to check in with oneself, to take stock of how they're doing emotionally and physically. Are they exhausted? Overwhelmed? Burned-out? Stressed out? Completely depleted? Many people don't do this in an ongoing way; they just go, go, go with regards to their work life and their home life, and this contributes to feelings of unhappiness, resentment and a sense of hopelessness about being on an endless treadmill they can't get off of." Ross encourages everyone to carve out "me time" that includes taking time to do something pleasurable. "This can include taking a mental health day off from their job," she says.

Legitimate Reasons to Play Hooky

There are many legitimate reasons for a mental health day off. Work can be stressful, tedious and very demanding, and over time without a break it can be "soul crushing," Ross says. Office politics can be odious and, at times, difficult to manage. Outside the workplace, challenging life events such as the death of a loved one, an unexpected illness in a family member or friend or the break-up of a meaningful relationship can also be reasons to take a mental health day. "A break from work can provide distance, literally and emotionally, in ways that can facilitate better coping strategies for addressing them," she says.

Red flags are raised, however, when mental health days move from occasional to often. Employers should be concerned when an employee exhibits patterns of such behavior, Riba says. "Taking many days off on Mondays, for example, may be a clue to excess drinking or addiction problems after binging on the weekend, or stressors at home over the weekend that may be related to parents or children or other life issues." Or when days off come after certain work events, like travel or giving presentations to the boss. "Are certain times of the year more stressful, at the job or in their personal life? You look at what is going on, the timing of events that can be predicted [to cause mental stress]," she says.


While taking a mental health day every now and then is a good thing, if it becomes a person's default strategy for coping with ongoing work-life stressors, then it might be best to find a therapist who can help develop an understanding of what the underlying causes of unhappiness or anxiety may be, Ross says. "In addition, it can help them develop more constructive and adaptive ways of coping with them."


Give Yourself a Break


Riba adds that, while a mental health day off can be fun every once and while, about 25 percent of people have a diagnosed psychiatric condition, and workplace stress is a problem for them. "We spend a lot of our waking time at work, and it is important we think about this," she says. Many companies now offer lots of mental health resources, from employee assistance programs to exercise and mindfulness classes, to address workers' mental health. That helps decrease the stigma about it, Riba says, and teaches workers to "figure out how to help themselves with not just a day off now and then but with a continuum of care."

For the occasional mental health day from work, Ross says moderation and consideration for others who might be affected by it – they're not missing an important meeting or deadline and forcing someone else to cover for them – are the most important things to weigh before heading off to the beach or the movies. Feeling bad about it, however, is not necessary. "Many people experience a mixture of feelings about doing this: guilt, anxiety, fear. They don't feel entitled to prioritize their well-being," she says. "My counter to that is, if they work for a company they are allotted paid sick days. It's one of the perks that come with the job. They've earned them and they deserve to use them. Also, in my view, the short-term gains from giving oneself a break – even if it's one day out of the office – can make a big difference in terms of reestablishing a better sense of well-being."


By David Levine

Source: health.usnews.com