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When should you take time off work for your mental health?

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Many of us will experience days when our mental health isn’t at its best, especially during the current coronavirus pandemic. But how do you know when to take a mental health sick day, and is it OK to take time off for your mental health when you’re working from home?

If you woke up tomorrow with a migraine or bout of food poisoning, chances are you wouldn’t hesitate to take the day off to rest and get better. Even if you’re one of the thousands of people now working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic, you’d probably feel OK with taking the time to switch off and take care of yourself.

So why is it that we don’t do the same if we’re having a bad mental health day? Recent research by graduate job board Milkround found that taking a mental health sick day is something that 49% of people still feel they can’t do, with only 14% of UK workers reporting they could be honest about taking a mental health day.

During the current coronavirus pandemic, chances are that many more of us will be experiencing bad mental health days due to our heightened anxiety levels, so this issue is more pressing than ever. It’s important to remember that just because you may be working from home and therefore don’t have to leave the house, doesn’t mean taking a day off won’t offer you the period of respite and recuperation you need at the moment.

“Working from home can seriously blur the boundaries between your work life and your home life, meaning we never switch off,” says mental health advocate Jo Love. 

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“However, just as you would take a sick day to get over a nasty cold, taking the occasional mental health day can help you recover from burnout and stress. The most important step is to recognise the signs that you need a mental health day and to not feel guilty. Mental health is just as important as physical health and taking a mental health day now can prevent more serious problems later.”

It’s clear that the stigma around taking mental health sick days still needs to be broken down, and we all need to educate ourselves on why it’s appropriate to take a day off work for our mental health. Below, Dr Becky Spelman, a psychologist at London’s Private Therapy Clinic, gives her advice on when to know it’s time to take a day off and prioritise your mental health.

If you had the flu, or had fallen and broken your ankle in the morning, you would take the day off work.

Your manager would hear the panicked pain in your voice, mark off the absence as scheduled, and you would get your physical illness or infirmity treated so you were fit to return to work. After all, if you came in with the flu, you would not be productive; you’d make silly mistakes; you’d be even more exhausted in the evening and it would take you longer to get better.

Mental health is not treated the same way as physical health, even though it has arguably more effect on you than a cold does. A cold is generally gone within a week, but poor mental health will not go away unless something is done to treat it.

So when working out if you should take a day off for your mental health, first you need to work out if you just need a day to rest and get back to the top of your game or if the issue is ongoing, and needs to be sorted out so you don’t need another mental health day sooner rather than later. 

You should still take the day off, but work out exactly what it’s for.

It might be treating yourself kindly by making sure you get enough sleep and taking a long, hot bath – it also might be sitting down with a healthy meal and working out what your strategy is for dealing with your particular stressor. (See here for a brilliant example of how your boss should respond to your request for a mental health day dropping into their inbox.)

There’s a common misconception that mental health days are just for those with a diagnosed mental illness. Everyone has mental health they need to look after, just as everyone has physical health that needs attention.

Having spikes of anxiety may not mean you have Generalised Anxiety Disorder, but it may mean that you need an extra day away from the office, to recharge and get yourself fighting fit by allowing the anxiety to dissipate as it’s not called to action day after day.

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One thing that’s important is to treat a mental health day as something apart from the norm. That means that even though you need a day to recharge be aware of relying on them too much. This can tell your brain that a pattern of avoidance is good and healthy, so every time you’re feeling slightly sad you’ll reach for the phone to tell your employer you’re not coming in.

That said, what are the reasons to take a mental health day?

The thought of going into work fills you with dread

This is not just a Sunday-evening feeling where you feel a little wistful that there’s not another day off. This is stomach-cramping, hand-shaking, naked fear and despair. It could be a workload that’s far too heavy, sniping and bullying colleagues, doing jobs that are not what you were hired to do and impacting you your overall performance – but if they’re affecting you that much, it’s proactive to look after your mental health by taking a day off and working out what to do.

Madeleine McGivern, Head of Workplace Wellbeing Programmes at Mind, adds: “Things like long working hours, excessive workload, and poor relationships with colleagues can all lead to unmanageable stress, which in turn can worsen or cause a mental health problem.

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick. Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain. It’s up to each individual employee to decide when their mental and/or physical health prevents them from being able to carry out their job and warrants asking their employer to take time off sick. Most employees experiencing a mental health problem can manage their symptoms and excel in their roles, provided they are given the right support.

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“Sick days can and should be used for a mental health problem, just as for a physical health problem, if it’s severe enough that someone needs time off. Creating a distinct category such as ‘mental health sick days’ could undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day to day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.

“What we do know is that employers who make mental health an organisational priority generally see improved staff morale and productivity, with employees who are more engaged and less likely to need to take time off sick. 

“Offering workplace wellbeing initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), flexible working hours, and ensuring good and supportive line management of all staff, can all make a massive difference when it comes to spotting any signs that people might be experiencing a period of poor mental health, nipping problems in the bud, and preventing long spells of sickness absence.”

You won’t be working well

Most of us will still go into work if we’re otherwise healthy but had interrupted sleep the night before; that’s still working 70% of our normal level. However, if you’re not working well because you’re wondering what the point of everything is, or you’re too paralysed to ask for help, or you’ve found yourself making hundreds of errors that healthy you would never make, your productivity will have slowed to a crawl and trying to push through it will only make it worse - this could be a symptom of burnout.

Take the day off to refresh your brain. 

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To make a plan to deal with your mental health

Although mental health fluctuates, and one day may be all you need to help stabilise it, there’s a chance that it might take a little while longer for you to get back to where you were. If you can, use part of your mental health day to work out a plan and start executing it.

You won’t feel so powerless because you’ll be taking steps to improve your health – whether you’re making an appointment with a therapist, seeing your GP about persistent low mood and feeling overwhelmed, or even blocking out time every day to do something that makes you feel more like yourself.

The bottom line is that you will feel better once you have taken time for yourself. Your work will suffer if you attempt to ignore you low mood, and since mental and physical health are so interconnected, you might find yourself suffering things like chest pains, stomach cramps, insomnia, digestive issues, headaches – all of which will bring down your mood and the quality of how you interact with people and manage with work.

This sounds easy, but you might be thinking of your singularly unsympathetic boss, or your non-existent HR department. A doctor or therapist will be the best port of call to decide what to do about managing longer-term mental health conditions, but know that your boss can’t dismiss you for disclosing you have a mental illness.

There are resources out there that can help you, but if one mental health day off from work only halts the problem for 24 hours, it’s safe to say you might need more help. If you’re worried about the impact mental illness is having on your work, contact us to discuss your difficulties with a Private Therapy Clinic Therapist.

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This article was originally published in August 2019 but has been updated throughout.

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