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mental health / lifestyle
What to Do When You Take a Mental Health Day
by BetterSleep
8 min read
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Taking care of mental health has long been neglected and stigmatized, while we consider it normal to manage physical health. More frequently, workplaces and employers are recognizing the necessity of sick days for all aspects of health, but many still do not.

If you need a mental break, consider taking a day off to do whatever supports your wellness. Whether that means taking advantage of a company-sanctioned and official mental health day or using a sick day as you see fit, a mental health day can be hugely beneficial.

A day off can help you manage burnout and mental health conditions. What you do with your day is up to you, but anything that promotes good health is best.

World Mental Health Day

The World Federation for Mental Health, an international NGO, created World Mental Health Day in 1992 to promote awareness and advocacy for good mental health. Many organizations, including the World Health Organization, celebrate the day every October 10.

It is a good opportunity to talk about mental health but also what active steps people can take to improve wellness. It’s just one day, but it should stimulate discussions of making every day good for mental health. Taking a day off for mental health is just one aspect of this.

What Are Mental Health Days?

A mental health day is the mental and emotional equivalent of a traditional sick day. You take the day off from work—or home and other life responsibilities for that matter—and do whatever benefits your mental health.

There is no magic number for how many such days a person needs for mental health concerns. If you have a mental health condition, you might need more. Some months, you might not need any, while the next month you need one or two.

What you do on a mental health day also varies depending on your needs and preferences. Some people like to engage in specific activities that support emotional well-being, while others simply need a mental break from thinking or doing. It’s a personal choice.

Signs You Need a Mental Health Day

First, it’s important to recognize that literally, everyone can benefit from an occasional mental health day. You do not need to have a mental illness diagnosis. Good mental health is for everyone.

Our culture tends to stigmatize mental illness or even talking about mental health. It also places high value on working hard in spite of any type of illness or fatigue. Being unable to work due to being sick or having mental health issues is generally seen as a weakness, but this is a mistake.

Everyone needs a break sometimes. These are some of the signs that you could be overdue for a mental health day:

  • You get physically ill often and don’t take time off to get better. Stress can lower your immunity and make you more susceptible to illness.
  • You feel overwhelmed and overloaded at work and unable to cope.
  • You have lost interest in doing your work and don’t care about the quality of what you get done.
  • Focusing on tasks has become increasingly difficult.
  • Fatigue is a frequent or daily occurrence.
  • You experience unusual mood swings or changes in mood that make you feel unlike your usual self. This could include getting easily irritated, frustrated, or angry with coworkers or feeling more depressed than normal.
  • If you have a mental health diagnosis, your symptoms recur more frequently or are more severe than normal. You’re struggling to keep it under control, even with normal treatment.
  • You have had a particularly bad episode of mental illness symptoms and don’t feel prepared to go to work.
  • You have a child or other family member struggling with mental health who needs your time and support.

How to Ask for a Mental Health Day from Work

If you’re lucky, you work for an enlightened employer that includes taking mental health days as part of normal sick days or paid time off.

Depending on the urgency, you can plan a few days ahead to take personal paid time off and use a vacation day. If the situation is more urgent, use a sick day.

If you don’t have paid time off for personal reasons or sick days, getting a mental health day can be difficult. It’s important to know your rights. Review workplace laws that address mental health and time off to ensure your rights are not denied before requesting time off for any reason.

It’s also important to review your company’s policies on time off and sick leave. Find out if your company has an Employee Assistance Program. This is a program that provides mental health resources and support in the form of counseling, assessments, and referrals.

Finally, consider the unwritten culture of your workplace. Is it strict or more relaxed about time off? Is mental health supported, stigmatized, or ignored? Is your boss understanding and approachable?

The more you know about your company, policies, and your rights, the better you can advocate for yourself. All this information will also help you determine how to approach a request for a day off for mental health.

10 Things to Do on Your Mental Wellness Day

The good news about this kind of day off work is that there are no rules. You should do exactly what feels right for your mental health and wellness.

For some, that means being productive in the house, getting chores done that have been piling up, while for others it means doing nothing more than staying on the couch all day.

This being said, there are some activities and parameters that are generally better for a mental day off than others. If you feel up to it, focus on doing things that are good for mental health. Here are some ideas:

1. Get Some Exercise

Exercise is one of the best things you can do for stress management and to boost mental health. You don’t have to do anything too strenuous to reap the benefits. Any kind of movement and physical activity, at your level and pace, will help.

Exercise is proven through research to reduce symptoms of depression. In fact, it has been shown to be as effective for mild and moderate depression as medications. Exercise is also a natural treatment for anxiety and stress. It can even help you cope with trauma and serious mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Even if you don’t have a mental illness, exercise improves your thinking, boosts energy and fights fatigue, builds self-esteem, and improves sleep.

Physical activity changes the brain to reduce inflammation and promote growth in neurons, patterns that support positive emotions.

2. For Bonus Points, Exercise Outside

Another great benefit to mental wellness is time spent in nature. As with exercise, this doesn’t have to mean any big, costly adventure. You don’t have to go to the wilderness or a national park to get the benefits. Time spent in your backyard or a local park is adequate.

Some of the benefits of being in and even just viewing green spaces include increased happiness, reduced depression, anxiety, and negative emotions, less stress, an improved sense of meaning in your life, boosted self-esteem, and reduced blood pressure and heart rate.

This is a great opportunity to include two activities for mental health in one. Getting your exercise while exposed to green spaces is as simple as going for a walk in a park or around your neighborhood.

3. Engage in a Creative Project

Letting your creative juices flow can be a great way to restore mental well-being. Choose something you enjoy. You don’t have to create a work of art or even anything very good. Try coloring or writing in a journal.

Being creative is a great way to express yourself and release negative emotions and tension. Creativity relieves stress and anxiety and helps people who have experienced trauma process their past and let go of shame and other bad feelings.

A creative project is also beneficial in another very simple way: it provides a distraction. Let your mind get completely immersed in the activity at hand.

4. Do Something Fun

If you just need a break from work and the tedium of your daily tasks, something frivolous and fun can be a great mood booster. This is subjective, of course.

For you it might mean a double feature at the movie theater, while for someone else a fun day is catching some thrill rides at an amusement park. Do what you find fun, that will make you laugh, and that provides a needed distraction.

5. Organize or Clean Your Home

Taking charge of your physical space can be great for your mental space. The state of your home likely reflects and affects your mental state. If it is cluttered, messy, and chaotic, it can make you feel out of control, hopeless, or overwhelmed.

A day off to take charge of some of the most pressing projects in your home might not be the most fun project, but it will probably make you feel better. Getting organized and ordered can reduce your stress, boost your mood, and increase your ability to relax after a tough day at work.

6. Socialize with Someone Who Makes You Feel Good

If possible, spend some time with a friend or family member who boosts your mood or provides a sympathetic shoulder. Call your parents, grab coffee with a friend, or take a grandparent out for lunch.

A strong social network correlates strongly with good mental health. Spending time with positive, supportive people helps you cope with problems and makes you more resilient. They provide laughs and distraction and share the burden when you’re going through something difficult.

Of course, there are times when you need to be alone to feel better. A day off to spend just with yourself is just as valid a way to boost mental health as socializing. You know yourself, so choose what you need on a particular day.

7. Do Nothing

While doing activities or being productive can be a great way to boost your mood and mental health, sometimes you just need to turn off and tune out. This might be especially beneficial when you’re feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, and overworked.

On a do-nothing day off, prioritize rest and sleep. Meditate and listen to music. Binge a favorite show or watch movies on the couch all day. A mental break sometimes means not thinking much and letting your brain go on autopilot.

8. Look into Professional Care

A mental health day is a great opportunity to consider your options for professional treatment if you feel you could benefit from it. As with the day off itself, you don’t have to have a diagnosed mental illness to benefit from therapy and other types of professional care.

Use the day off to research local therapists and treatment options. If you have already thought about getting pro support, this can be a good time to attend the first session or to interview therapists and counselors.

What Not to Do on a Mental Health Day

Simply put, avoid doing anything that makes you feel worse or harms your overall health. Exactly what counts in this category isn’t necessarily immediately obvious. Some activities make you feel better at first but then cause your mood to deteriorate later.

For instance, a glass of wine in the middle of a day off might seem relaxing, but it can easily lead to overdrinking, feeling sick, and feeling bad about yourself.

Similarly, indulging in unhealthy foods, using drugs, wallowing on social media, and similar activities are all ultimately detrimental to wellness, both physical and mental.

The only rule with mental health days is never to feel guilty about taking one. It’s time to end the stigma associated with mental illness and to devote as much time to mental wellness as physical. The next time you need a day off for your mind, you know what to do.

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