What is the “right way” to take a mental health day? I’ve seen a LOT in popular media lately that I’m having kneejerk reactions to as NOPE, but I’m not sure the “old” way to take a mental health day is correct either. So let’s discuss.
To back up a bit: we already discussed generational divides in the workplace and the recent NYT story, “38-Year-Olds are Afraid of their 23-Year-Old Employees.” But one quote from the story, I think, deserves its own post:
Ali Kriegsman, 30, co-founder of the retail technology business Bulletin, wasn’t sure, in the past, how to respond when her Gen Z employees insisted on taking days off for menstrual cramps or mental health: “Hey I woke up and I’m not in a good place mentally,” went the typical text message. “I’m not going to come in today.” Instinctively Ms. Kriegsman wanted to applaud their efforts to prioritize well being — but she also knew their paid time off could undercut business.
I had a visceral reaction to reading that. I’ve felt those emotions myself (overwhelmed, anxious, depressed), but I still feel like that’s not the way you take a “mental health day.”
I also saw a Facebook meme that said, “I want us to normalize ‘I cannot work today because I am not in the mental space to engage with others’ and that be okay.” Which — yeah! As a person with feelings I totally agree with that. BUT… society (and most businesses) just do not run that way.
In my day (I’m a Xennial born in 1977), if you weren’t in the mental space to engage with others, you called in sick with a vague ailment and worked from home that day. If you had to go in because Reasons, you put on your resting bitch face, shut the door to your office if you needed to, and played Solitaire on the computer until you had to do something for real.
It looks like back in 2018, Alison at Ask a Manager would have agreed with me:
With “mental health days” — meaning a day that you take off to relieve stress/avoid burnout or when you just can’t face the world — say that you’re “under the weather” or “a bit ill.” You can’t really call up and say, “I can’t bear the thought of coming into work today,” but you also shouldn’t make up a hacking cough. It’s fine to just be vague. (In fact, it’s fine to be vague even when you have an actual sickness like the flu or horrific diarrhea or whatever. Decent managers will accept “I’m sick today and won’t be in” rather than expecting or even wanting a detailed list of your symptoms.)
Just since 2018, though, I feel like there’s been a lot of movement in this space, particularly with noteworthy people normalizing the concept of being proactive about you mental health. Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and other celebrities have recently made headlines for advocating for mental health awareness, for example.
If you think you’re going to need a lot of mental health days, it might be worth looking into workplace accommodations, which may be available for “psychiatric disabilities.” (Verywell Mind has a list of those disabilities.) Here’s some further reading on it from the U.S. Department of Labor — it lists accommodations (such as sick leave, more breaks), modifications (private offices, room dividers), equipment requests (white noise, organizer programs), job duties (removal of non-essential job duties, division of large assignments into smaller tasks and goals), and management accommodations (positive reinforcement, more frequent meetings, additional forms of communication), etc.
So I guess these are my tips:
The Right Way to Take a Mental Health Day
- If it’s last minute and unplanned, call in sick with a vague ailment (“I’m not feeling well today” works!) and promise to do what you need to from home. (This may mean check your email every 4 hours or so to make sure balls aren’t dropped and urgent questions are forwarded to someone else.)
- If you anticipate that you’ll need frequent mental health days, seek accommodations and modifications pursuant to the Department of Labor’s list above. (Or, as commenters have noted, just schedule a PTO day off.)
(Obviously, if it’s planned vacation or other anticipated leave (e.g., maternity, surgery, etc) then set your out of office email and enjoy whatever time off means for your office — in some offices that still means checking email once a week or so, so know your office.)
Readers, what say you — what is the right way to take a mental health day? If you’ve taken a mental health day at work, what was your technique? If you manage people, what have you seen others doing that strikes you as the “right way” to take a mental health day?
Stock photo via Stencil.
So the right day to take a mental health day is to start it off with a lie? That isn’t going to help normalize mental health care.
I think “normalizing” it is requesting accommodations and then being vocal about those, as well as loudly protecting boundaries.
I took a mental health day on Friday – I used vacation rather than sick leave and planned it 3 weeks in advance.
On days I wake up and struggle emotionally I still go into work (or wfh if I can), but just phone it in for the day.
I’m a young millennial with anxiety, but I’m also an essential worker in a field that depending on the day/assignment makes it hard to call out. Part of me thinks it’s great that mental health is being addressed (finally!), but part of me thinks young people need to learn how to suck it up and tough it out at times.
I would say “I’m not feeling well” for this. Covers any number of reasons. But tbh not sure why you would blow a day of PTO on “ugh work again, didn’t I do this yesterday!” when you could show up but do easy or minimal tasks only…
for proactively planning “mental health days” – if it all comes out of the same PTO bucket, why not just say you’re taking the day… no need to say you’re planning for a mental health day? Like when you really think about it… isn’t most PTO “mental health days”!
This. If you have an acute need for a mental health day, that’s something to seek treatment for and definitely use a sick day. And don’t lie about it. But if you just don’t feel like being there? That’s PTO.
I just . . . send my boss a calendar meeting that I am taking PTO (showing as free) and go on with my life. In the 7 years I have been with my employer, I have never felt the need to explain my PTO. I just use it when I want to and if there is a meeting I absolutely have to be in and can’t have rescheduled, I dial in for that only (rare).
Completely disagree with promising to “check email” on your mental health day. If you’re on PTO, you’re on PTO (same thing with sick leave, if your company differentiates). Use the day you have afforded yourself. Work will call if there’s an emergency.
+1. My wife and I talked about this on vacation and I ended up doing pretty well with not checking email. There were a couple direct messages I responded to, but only to say “I’ll get to that when I’m back.” YMMV, but I’m definitely not getting paid enough to work on my days off.
I never share physical health details when taking time off, mental health should be no different.
This is how I feel too. Mental health is health, but I also just don’t really want to discuss my health in detail with my employer unless absolutely necessary. If I’m sick, which for me includes migraines and anxiety-related insomnia, I use sick leave. I basically never provide details except “I’m taking a sick day.” If I’m just feeling stressed or burned out, that’s personal leave or a vacation day (or more often, a work from home day where I just don’t accomplish anything).
I don’t see how calling in sick and then monitoring e-mail or taking meetings from home would be much of a mental break. I would schedule a day of PTO in advance and arrange to be completely out of contact with work. If there were a serious last-minute need, I’d call in sick and would not make myself available.
There are two kinds of mental health days, as I see it — reactive (I cannot today. I need a break and i need to breathe) and proactive (I am going to take off X day next week and do what makes me happy). Reactive is fine to call in sick- and it is a sick day. Proactive is valuable but uncool to just be like “Today is the day!” if that puts your colleagues in a bind. But both of these kinds of days are very very valuable. YMMV, but I have found that being proactive and scheduling some days off just for me to do my thing with the kids in school and no one wanting anything from me cuts down on the need for the reactive days. If you are reading this, consider if you can schedule a proactive day in your near term future!
I am either a very young Gen Xer or a very old Millennial, but the tone of this post rubbed me the wrong way. I love that younger generations are being honest about mental health and trying to build better boundaries between life and work. Imagine how much work drama could be avoided if people stayed home and took a day off when they’re not in a place to interact with people! Yes, if someone is taking mental health days once a month they either need a new job or mental health treatment or both. But once or twice a year? Why not.
Personally, I’m very private so I would just say I’m not feeling well. I am also a fan of the proactive mental health day. If it’s a gorgeous summer Friday and I don’t have any meetings, why not take impromptu PTO? Or if I’ve been on the road and in five states in four days (pre-COVID), I tell everyone I’m not going anything on day 5 except maybe catching up on email. At home. In comfy pants.
Agree with this. I’m same gen as Kat, and took a leave of absence a while back. This was at a large company who talk big about the value of mental health of their employees. I met with new boss prior to rejoining (at which point I felt way better and was ready), and it was uncomfortable enough for me to find a job elsewhere. So behold it would be great to have the option to take leave, it’s not always realistic.