by Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department
Are you unusually overwhelmed at work? Do you fear that – contrary to your character – you are one careless comment away from smacking a coworker in the face, or bursting into tears in the break room? Can you no longer distinguish your personal life from your work life? If you’re otherwise healthy, but feeling out of sorts and out of control, maybe it’s time to take a mental health day.
A mental health day (MHD) is just like a sick day. Instead of staying home because of a sore throat or a twisted ankle, however, an employee takes this day off work for a legitimate wellness concern that may not present physically. Sometimes the need stems from a clinically diagnosed illness (i.e., Major Depressive Disorder), but not always. Depression, anxiety, grief, stress, and emotional trauma are some possible reasons to take a mental health day.
“That sounds like playing hooky,” you might say, skeptically. Indeed, our culture pressures us to put career first, ahead of family and sanity. You may know someone who missed a child’s birthday party, rescheduled an anniversary dinner, or cancelled a vacation due to being “on call” at a job that has nothing to do with life and death.
And there’s still a cultural stigma against mental illnesses. They often go ignored or misunderstood, and aren’t given the same consideration as a visible sickness or injury. People with depression, for example, are instructed to “buck up.” This places the demand for a cure back on the sick individual, rather than encouraging them to seek help. (Imagine telling someone with a broken leg to “walk it off!”)
I’m not suggesting we all abandon our jobs and start living like Thoreau in the woods. (Although that is my own personal plan for early retirement.) But I am suggesting we start to value mental health as a vital element of wellness. It’s irresponsible to show up to work if you’ve got a fever. It’s equally unwise to wait until you’re in psychological crisis mode before you take some time off work. When you see your emotional distress flare, consider scheduling a mental health day (people who know you well can help you spot the warning signs, too.)
Be sure the day is productive in some way. You’re not skiving off work; you’re taking care of yourself. Evaluate the reasons you are staying home from work, and decide what you need most. Is it sleep? Quality time with a loved one? An afternoon full of play? If a Netflix marathon usually leaves you sluggish and empty, skip it. This is a day to fill yourself up. Here are some elements you might incorporate into your MHD:
- Drink lots of water all day long, and eat healthy food. (Dehydration and poor nutrition amplify the effects of emotional stress.)
- Schedule an appointment with your therapist, counselor, or mentor; or catch up with a friend who will listen with compassion.
- Attend to personal issues that have been causing stress, such as a long to-do list or a wilting relationship.
- Get out in nature.
- Sleep in, or take a restorative nap during the day. Go to bed earlier than usual.
- Exercise, to get your mind and body back in sync. It should be something you enjoy, not a chore: yoga, swimming, shooting hoops, golfing, climbing rock walls, …
- Book a therapeutic massage.
- Drive a few towns over for a change of scenery.
- Put your phone on Do Not Disturb. This will help block out social media, e-mails, and marketing calls. (Most phones let you customize this option, so you can still get important calls from select contacts.)
- Do something creative and meditative, such as painting, writing, cooking, or gardening.
- Laugh – and cry! Both work wonders for stress relief. Watch a movie, listen to a podcast, or read a book that you know will engage your emotions.
During your mental health day, you may come up against a few lies, so be sure to equip yourself with the truth: Time spent resting is NOT time wasted. It is NOT weak to ask for help or to express your needs. You ARE worth taking care of! And self-care is NOT selfish!
If taking a paid day off isn’t an option at your job, you can still dedicate a day to your mental health. The same goes for those of you who work from home, or stay home as a caregiver to family members. You’ll have to be intentional with your scheduled days off. You may have to ask for more help and be firm with your boundaries. But you CAN do it, and it IS worth it.
None of these activities will cure a mental illness or replace a long-term management plan, of course. You may need to incorporate lifestyle changes, or find a counselor or medical professional whose job is to equip you to navigate life’s challenges. (Check the links at the end of this post for a starting point to that search.) But taking time to care for yourself in meaningful ways can help maintain a sense of balance, self-worth, and perspective. As the rallying cry goes, “Mental health is health!”
When you are ready to go back to work, I hope you notice that you’re feeling refreshed and in control. A healthy person can give more, and joyfully so, to all around them: at home, at work, and everywhere else.
A few links to help you search for a mental health care professional: