Credit: Westend61/Getty Images
It’s one of the best ways to stay functional
It’s Tuesday morning. It feels like you’ve dealt with an entire workweek and you’re already drained. You’re on your third coffee which is giving you heart palpitations and by 10 a.m. you feel like crying at your desk. You can’t concentrate on a single thing because you’re distracted by how miserable you feel.
Sound familiar? You’re not sick, but you need a day off.
Regardless if someone has a mental health condition or not, everyone deserves mental health days to take time to relax and recharge. While allotted mental health days aren’t universally offered, society is making strides, at least when it comes to students: This year, Oregon passed a bill allowing students to take five mental health days in a three month period. Some companies offer mental health days, but it’s not the standard.
In today’s culture, employees feel the need to work hard constantly. Staying late at the office to work on projects is the norm, as is scarfing down a sad desk lunch instead of taking an actual lunch break. It’s no wonder 2019 was the year the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” defining it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
“The idea that you can function 24/7, 365 [days a year] at peak efficiency is just not compatible with human biology,” says Steven Siegel, MD, PhD, and chair of the department of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “If we don’t recognize the need to slow down and attend to our own health, then we’re headed down a self-destructive path.”
A recent survey conducted by mental health app Shine found that 95% of participants think taking a mental health day would improve their work performance, however, only 28% of these people would actually feel comfortable asking for a mental health day. Therein lies the problem.
“Recognize that the intentional plan to prioritize time to slow down and time to attend to yourself is not being selfish,” Siegel says. “It’s actually recognizing that this is the best way to keep yourself healthy, functional, and available to others in other times.”
How do you know when it’s time for a mental health day?
“Don’t wait until you hit rock bottom,” says Bhanu Joy Harrison, LCSW, an instructor at UCLA’s Semel Institute, and Mindful Awareness Research Center. “Have that mindful self-awareness to know, ‘Gee my resources are getting low. I’m at about a quarter tank of energy for what I’m doing, and I need to fill up.’”
Do a run through to check if you’re experiencing any warning signs, or “yellow flags,” as Harrison calls them. Some examples she notes are having trouble sleeping, gravitating toward more caffeine or sugar, feeling your relationships declining, or experiencing increased amounts of anger. If you find yourself ticking these boxes or noticing any other unhealthy changes in behavior, it’s time to take a mental health day. You don’t want to get to the red flag zone, where you might be having panic attacks, depressive symptoms like hopelessness, or even turning to substances to cope.
When you ask for a mental health day, make it clear your employer will benefit from this, too
Upon recognizing a mental health day is necessary, it’s time to request the time off. Siegel recommends assessing your workload, determining what needs to be done ASAP and what can wait until after your mental health day, and assuring your boss that regardless, your work will be completed in a timely manner. Alternatively, you can ask for deadline extensions on anything that isn’t urgent.
When making your case to your boss, Siegel suggests saying something along the lines of, “I will be more useful and more productive in meeting shared objectives if I can take a day away from this to focus on some other things and reset my clock.” Make it a point that your employer will benefit from this, too, because they will.
Another thing to consider is a plan you can put in place at work with your colleagues so you can fully unplug and not worry about work. Seigel suggests creating a plan with a co-worker who can cover for any urgent needs for you, and you can do the same for them when it’s their turn for a mental health day. You can also tell them if there’s a true work emergency which you and only you can attend to, they should call your cell instead of emailing you, so you don’t have to worry about checking emails.
“Do what works for you so that you can put aside your worry and not have 50% of your consciousness wondering all day about what you’re missing because you’ve put plans in place that say, ‘I’m not missing anything,’” Siegel says. “You’ve done the proactive work to secure all the things that will distract you, so go ahead and relax.”
We need permission not just from our employers, but also from ourselves, to take the break we deserve and need. Let’s stop glorifying being busy and start glorifying slowing down.
This is how you plan your mental health day
In order to maximize your day off and make it the perfect mental health day for you, Harrison recommends “planning your day off mindfully.” It’s easy to take a day off, sleep in late, and watch Netflix all day, but will that really be restorative enough for your mental health? Establish what you need before the day starts.
“Identify your needs ahead of time and write them down,” Harrison says. “What does your body need? What does your emotional heart need? What does your mind need?” Then, figure out what you can do to meet those needs. You can give yourself the best mental health day possible when you know exactly what you’re craving.
There are plenty of science-backed activities you can include in your day off that’ll boost your mental health. Here are some ideas:
Siegel and Harrison agree: there’s no substitute for getting up and moving. It’s tempting to be lazy on a day off and binge your favorite show, but exercising will really maximize your mental health day. “There is something incredibly restorative about exercise,” says Siegel. “When people exercise they do better mentally, cognitively, and emotionally.”
Exercise reduces your body’s levels of stress hormones which can lower anxiety levels. Additionally, endorphins, one type of your body’s feel-good hormones are released, boosting your mood and possibly even relieving physical pain. You can get these benefits from any type of exercise, whether it’s gentle yoga or a more intense workout, although some studies have shown higher intensity workouts have higher anti-anxiety effects.
Plus, exercise can help you sleep better — what better way to end a mental health day than with a sound night of sleep?
Fresh air and sunshine are great medicine, according to Harrison and various researchers. It’s beneficial to get outside when you spend so much time cooped up inside at work. Use your day off to reclaim your space in the great outdoors, not in a cubicle. Studies have shown a link between proximity to “green space” and a reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms.
Another recent study found even just 20 minutes spent in a park resulted in an increase in subjective well-being. Additionally, the sunlight will provide you with vitamin D and can help increase serotonin production, which can, in turn, improve mood.
Of course, it’s a bit harder to do this in the cold winter months, but if you can manage to get outside, breathe in fresh air, and feel the sun’s rays on your face for just a few minutes, you’ll reap some benefits.
Mindfulness can mean a lot of things, but at the core of it, it’s all about being in the present moment, aware of how you’re feeling, what your senses are experiencing, and not future thinking. There are multiple ways you can do this, ranging from little mindful moments to a full-on meditation session.
Harrison recommends incorporating mindfulness into activities you are already doing on your mental health day. For example, if you’re going on a walk, you can do a “five sensory practice” outdoors. Harrison suggests identifying five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. “Being in a sensory experience can really help a person come back into the present moment,” she says.
You can even do mindful eating — basically the opposite of scarfing down lunch at your desk — to relax. Harrison recommends chewing slowly, noticing all the flavors and textures of what you’re eating. She says, “Anything that can bring you back to your body can help reset your nervous system into a more parasympathetic rest and digest relaxation mode.”
Then, of course, there’s meditation. You can meditate whatever way sounds most appealing to you, whether it’s sitting still for 10 minutes and noticing your breath, allowing thoughts to float away, or listening to a guided meditation on a mindfulness app or even just on YouTube. Studies have proven time and time again that mindfulness and meditation can reduce stress levels and decrease anxiety symptoms, and can even improve your concentration.
To get the most out of mindfulness, add it to your daily routine, not just your day off routine.
Let’s be real. You probably aren’t really having fun at work if you’re considering a mental health day. On your day off, do things that are fun for you. This can include taking time to socialize and spend quality time with loved ones. Siegel urges people to connect with others during their mental health day. Studies show that socializing is beneficial to overall well-being and can reduce feelings of depression. Even if your friends have to work, you can meet them for lunch, or after they get off for dinner and a drink. Or, you can even plan to take a mental health day with your friends if a few of you can plan to take the same day off in advance. Spending time with your partner or family after they finish work or school is great, too.
You can also have fun by doing whatever you love to do that you don’t have time to do on workdays. Have a dance party to your favorite music in your room, do some crafts if you enjoy being creative, or take part in other hobbies you love. Studies show that engaging in creative hobbies has been linked with greater feelings of well-being, even lasting into the day after you create.
If you plan your mental health day in advance, you can go to a sporting event for your favorite team or go to a concert or play — whatever will bring you joy. Studies have found that participating in leisure activities can lead to less stress and a better mood.
It’s possible to stop burnout and reduce work-related stress. We just need to be self-aware, recognizing when we need to take a step back to take time off before we reach a breaking point. We need permission not just from our employers, but also from ourselves, to take the break we deserve and need. Let’s stop glorifying being busy and start glorifying slowing down.