Need a Mental Health Day? Look for These Signs

UPDATED: May 29, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 29, 2024
Young women taking a mental health day

We live in a “hustle” culture where productivity is the goal. Yet it’s estimated that more than 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental health issues—struggles that can show up in a variety of different forms. Anything from negative self-talk, an eating disorder, not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, depression or everyday anxiety can impact daily life.

People in leadership positions may have a harder time taking a mental health day because they think everything rests on their shoulders. But paying attention to your needs not only will enhance your personal and professional life, it will build a positive workplace culture.

I spoke to Katie Horwitch, mindset coach and author of Want Your Self: Shift Your Self-Talk and Unearth the Strength in Who You Were All Along about the importance of taking a mental health day and how to know when you need one.

What is a mental health day?

Typically, a mental health day is a day you take off from work or school to minimize your commitments. It’s important to remember that this typically doesn’t include running errands. “Something a lot of people get wrong about mental health days is they think it’s their time to squeeze in all of the things on their to-do list they’ve been putting off,” explains Horwitch. “In some cases that’s the opposite of a mental health day.” Instead, “it’s taking the time to really focus on what matters most in the moment, which is caring for your mental health.” And creating that routine, where you know when to take time to decompress is the key. “It’s not about becoming a different person for a day, it’s about habit formation. The more you take the time to consistently care for your mental health, the easier it will eventually become.”

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The benefits of mental health days to your overall well-being

The need for productivity exists everywhere, even in fitness culture and leisure activities. “We think we must be at 100% and be the best all the time,” says Horwitch. “We’re not well-versed in taking a beat and setting the reset button. Additionally, we need to shift the negative self-talk that can pop up around taking that beat to reset.”

Instead of scolding yourself with negative self-talk like, “Why can’t I push through?” taking a break can give us space to regroup and shift our perception of ourselves. And it goes beyond just you: This is about changing societal norms too. Horwitch says, “When I speak to clients, I really stress that while you have agency over your life, you are also a product of your environment. We have to shift both at the same time, our own perception of things and our patterns as a society. We all get to play a part in crafting the world we want to live in.”

What are the ramifications on your professional work/life? 

Studies show that not caring for your mental health can lower your productivity, lead to disengagement at work, and even result in eventual unplanned absences. Employers benefit from allowing and encouraging mental health days too: Poor mental health can cost an organization more money over time because of the negative impact on productivity and workplace culture and may lead to poor retention rates.

Not taking time for yourself can also have long-term ramifications in your personal life, from strained relationships and loss of interest in things you once loved to physical health issues linked to heightened stress. The Mayo Clinic states that “stress that’s not dealt with can lead to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes.”

What are some signs you might need mental health days? 

Do activities that previously brought you joy now feel negative? Are you forgetting things? Are you feeling a sense of dread about the tasks you need to accomplish? “Everyone experiences dread or anxious feelings, but pay attention if this is the pattern or the norm instead of the exception,” says Horwitch. “If you’re getting into arguments with the people in your life and creating a level of defensiveness you usually don’t have, or you’re perceiving everybody is wrong or everybody’s getting on your nerves, those are signs that you probably need a mental health day.”

The signs you need a mental health day might be simpler than you think. We need certain things in order to function on a base level, and when we don’t get those, our mental health can suffer. Are there basic needs of yours that aren’t being met? What isn’t being fulfilled? If you struggle to perform once-simple tasks like eating, taking a shower or sleeping, you probably need to take a pause to recalibrate. While socioeconomic circumstances can complicate the ability to fulfill these needs consistently, we all deserve mental health care and self-compassion. 

When shouldn’t you take a mental health day? 

Simply wanting an excuse to get out of work doesn’t count, says Horwitch. “You shouldn’t be taking a mental health day from a place of avoidance. A mental health day should exist in the ecosystem of building a sustainably fulfilling life for yourself.” If you wouldn’t benefit from rest and relief and it wouldn’t enhance the other facets of your life, including work or school, then you probably don’t need a mental health day.

How to ask your employer when taking a mental health day

In an ideal world, we could just talk to our superior at work or tell our team we won’t be around that day. But unfortunately, that’s not realistic for many people. One option is to call in sick. “If you have a chronic cough, you go to the doctor to make sure it doesn’t escalate. So when you are at the end of your rope, it makes sense to take that paid time off.” But if taking a sick day or PTO isn’t an option, use what’s available. 

For example, take a mental health day on a day you already have off. Maybe you have a national holiday off work, or your workplace is closed on a certain day. Even a weekend day or a half-day counts. By using time away from work that is already built into your schedule, you can get what you need without feeling uncomfortable. And remember that you also don’t have to take a full 24 hours. A half mental health day counts too. 

Superficial self-care versus real self-care

People can get pretentious about what self-care is and isn’t. Superficial self-care may seem to mean a bubble bath or facial, but superficial isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “What actually makes it self-care is the why behind what you are doing,” says Horwitch. “Real self-care is time when you’re able to proactively clear or reset your brain. Something that signals to your body that you can relax, recharge and center yourself as your top priority.” 

For some people, that may be something physical like going for a run, doing yoga, stretching or going for a long walk—for others, it might be carving out a moment of silence at home or going to bed 15 minutes earlier. Ideally, over time, real self-care has effects that last beyond a fleeting moment. “Superficial self-care focuses on what self-care looks like. Real self-care focuses on what it feels like and, ultimately, where that feeling will take you.”

While mental health days are a vital part of a mental wellness routine, they may not address deeper or more long-lasting concerns. The information provided here is for educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult a medical professional or health care provider for diagnosis, personalized advice, and/or treatment.

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