Mclean Hospital

Should You Take a Mental Health Day?

By Donald A. Davidoff, PhD

March 24, 2019

There has been much discussion lately about whether it’s okay to take a day or two off to attend to your mental health. As a psychologist, I’m certainly an advocate of doing whatever you need to do—without shame or hesitation—to take care of your mental health.

While the stigma surrounding mental health is certainly a factor in pressuring people to not take enough time off to maintain a healthy life, it is, unfortunately, not the only factor.

In my estimation, the other major factor is that people are working harder than they ever have before. A recent survey found that well more than one half of Americans failed to take all of their allotted vacation days in 2016, and this willingness to voluntarily forego paid vacation has been a recurrent theme for years. Not only that, many people are working well beyond 40 hours per week—probably even more than they realize.

In my role as an executive coach, I recently spoke with a client who told me during a consultation that he works about 60 hours per week. However, when I spoke to him the following week—after he shared his working hours estimate with his wife—he said that his wife laughed before explaining to him that he might spend 60 hours per week at the office, but then spends another 25 hours or so working at home.

This anecdote is emblematic of how our work/life balance has gotten skewed, at least in this country. However, there is hope.

The older generations—up through the baby boomers—have been drawn into a situation where they put so many hours of their lives into working, that it is often to the detriment of their own personal lives. Meanwhile, what I’m seeing with younger generations is that they’re becoming much more concerned with work/life balance.

One of the things that I tell people is that no matter how much you love work, work isn’t ever going to love you back. To lead a happy, healthy life, there must be a balance between doing work that you find to be useful, engaging, and satisfying, with an ability to have relationships with people and the community in which you live.

Taking a break from your usual work routine is good for your health and well-being

Foosball table
Whether you use a mental health day to address an acute mental health issue or as a means to balance the stresses of life and work, it is important to take care of yourself

Think of mental health as a tripod. A healthy life rests on three legs—engaging work, healthy relationships, and connections with community. When you spend too much time at work, the tripod becomes unbalanced, and we risk a collapse.

Acknowledging that you need time for yourself isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t selfish. It’s something that we don’t do enough of.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed and not finding any relief, that’s a signal that it’s time to take a day off. You know yourself better than anyone else, so if you feel you need a day or two off to take care of your mental health, then do it.

You can use that time off in a variety of ways. You can, for instance, help reduce stress by taking care of important chores that have been neglected, like paying your bills, cleaning your house, or doing your laundry. A more sedentary yet very valuable use of your time off would be to catch up on sleep, which is extremely important for your mental health. You can also use your time off to “stop and smell the roses.” Go to a museum, lie on the beach—do something on a weekday that you normally wouldn’t do.

Of course, if your mental health concern is more profound, you should immediately do whatever you can—including taking whatever amount of time is necessary—to help take care of your condition. Quite simply, mental health should be treated just like physical health. I have seen the dramatically disparate effects of treated versus untreated mental health issues, and not acknowledging and treating a mental health condition is as dangerous as not acknowledging and treating a physical disease.

As far as how explicit you want to be about your reasons for taking a mental health day, that’s up to you. You’re entitled to take sick time and vacation time, and you don’t need to disclose your reasons why you’re taking time off or where you’re going. In the end, employers should be happy to have employees who are willing to take time off, for a healthy employee is a productive employee.

Remember that work alone is not enough to sustain an individual. Take a day off. Balance your tripod.

Donald A. Davidoff, PhD, is chief of the Neuropsychology Department at McLean Hospital and an assistant professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

March 24, 2019

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