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Why—and How—to Take a Mental Health Day

Allowing ourselves to acknowledge that we need a break is the first step  

Mira Kaplan

For as long as most of us can remember, we’ve divided work and rest understanding that consecutive days of labor require respite. In modern times, we have weekends. A two-day bookend to a five-day week. But 40-hour, Monday through Friday work weeks have been challenged by digital nomads, remote work and of course the pandemic. A businessman’s Friday may be a chef’s Monday. The two-day weekend, a nominal Saturday or Sunday, doesn’t really exist anymore. So when, do we take breaks? This mental health awareness month, we’re being intentional about knowing when we need a break, taking time to think about taking time off and asking why—and how—to take a mental health day. 

Why Do so Few of Us Take Mental Health Days? 

In America, it might be said that we live to work. Working overtime and answering emails on the weekends is often expected. We work until we reach burnout, and then we keep going. The Atlantic calls this “workism” or “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.” But many experts in the field of psychiatry advocate for deliberate time off. This Forbes article, published in 2020, interviewed practitioners across the mental health field who all agree “mental health is health,” “there is no health without mental health.” 

Dialogue around mental health awareness and education often emphasizes that we need to treat mental health like we do physical health. But it’s not objective. Though psychiatrists champion mental health, we know that many cultures and communities feel differently. Mental health and stigma have always, unfortunately, gone hand in hand. Taking time off is one thing, but deliberately taking time off for your mental health is another. Owning that you are doing something specifically for your mental health can still be complicated. 

Workplace Attitudes Around Mental Health Are Changing

For Edgar, a 26-year-old barista/server in Los Angeles, the idea of taking a mental health day is not something he grew up with. He agrees that mental health should be taken care of as much as physical health but personally wouldn’t call off work for that reason.

“I don’t think it’s a good enough reason to not show up to work, sadly, because of how I grew up and the working class I’m in. I can’t afford that and I’ve been conditioned to think I personally don’t need to take a mental health day,” Edgar said.

 Though he wouldn’t call out of work for a mental health day, he takes his mental health seriously. On days off, he’s able to unwind and unplug. Every day, he deliberately takes time for himself to take a drive or rest in bed while scrolling through TikTok.

When you work in a restaurant and clock out, you’re mentally clocked out. For 9-5ers, work often feels like it never ends. Email notifications don’t stop at 5 pm, nor do Slack pings or calendar invites. Kelsey, 28, works in a 9-5 corporate environment as a marketing coordinator in insurance. She feels extended, but also supported. Her managers encourage her team to take days off, reminding them that PTO is there for a reason.

“In the past,” Kelsey says, “I wasn’t comfortable using that verbiage. I would never say I need a mental health day. I’m a lot more confident and don’t see it as something negative where in the past I would have felt shame or weakness in that.” 

Kelsey says this has a lot to do with her current company’s culture but knows not every work environment is the same. She does wonder if there should be a separate category for mental health days, rather than using PTO or sick time.  

How Do You Ask for Time off Due to Mental Health?

Many companies, and the labor force in general, are paying attention. The more people talk about mental health, especially during months like Mental Health Awareness Month, the more companies can’t ignore it. This 2021 Forbes article includes a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), which found that “long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000.” The study reminds us that mental health is health. There are countless templates and resources that guide workplaces in creating mental health policies and statements. But we have a long way to go. Even when we do take a mental health day, our work culture is so ingrained that we may feel shame or guilt. After Kelsey takes a day off, she says “I still feel guilty that I missed a day of work. I know it defeats the whole purpose but burnout is real.” 

There’s no right or wrong way to take a mental health day. Recognizing that we are burnt out, anxious or depleted is the first step. Allowing ourselves to take those cues seriously is the next. Scheduling a meeting with a trusted manager to discuss mental health PTO can be a great first step in starting the conversation about taking time off. Share only what you’re comfortable sharing about why you’d like to take time off and let your manager know that you want to be able to do your best work when you’re clocked in and taking this time to rejuvenate will help you do that. It will take an undoing of our deep-rooted “workism” but we’re currently on a precipice of changing how we work. Mental health means something different to everyone but our conversations are shifting as we keep talking about what we need. Awareness is powerful, self-advocacy is essential and times are changing. As Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University School of Medicine states in her interview with Forbes, “Your mental health is the foundation upon which the whole house is built. Never apologize for taking time and energy for yourself.”   

Mira Kaplan is a Boston-born and LA-based freelance writer. With a background in Urban Studies and Art History, her work lies at the intersection of music, art and community engagement. Whether creating soundscapes from traffic noise or photographing pink things in public spaces, curiosity drives her storytelling. 

Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash.


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