Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/8/2022
We all have good days and bad mental health days. When you’re not feeling your best, focusing on your work can be difficult or virtually impossible, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with a form of mental illness such as an anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder (MDD).
Whether you’re experiencing severe anxiety or depression symptoms, or your stress levels are just getting a little too high for you to work your best, sometimes the best solution is to ask your boss for a mental health day off.
Spending a day away from work can have significant mental and physical health benefits. It can also have benefits for your work by helping you come back to the workplace the next day feeling more motivated and energized.
Below, we’ve explained what a mental health day is, as well as the benefits of taking a day off to take care of your mental health.
We’ve also listed a few common signs that it could be the right time for you to consider taking a mental health day, as well as the most effective ways to ask your boss for a mental health break without creating a negative impression.
First of all, let’s cover the basics of what a mental health day actually is. Just like you can (and should) take a day off from work when you’re feeling physically unwell, it’s also okay to take time off work when you’re feeling mentally unwell.
The reason for this is that when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, depressed or affected by any other mental health issues, it’s easy for both your personal wellbeing and your ability to work to suffer.
According to one study on mental health in the workplace led by the World Health Organization, the effects of depression and anxiety disorders alone cost the global economy $1 trillion a year in lost productivity.
When your mental health isn’t optimal, it can result in poorer outcomes for everyone at your place of work, from you to your colleagues and supervisors, especially the people that depend on you as part of a team.
The idea behind a mental health day is simple — just like you can take a day off to recover from a cold, flu, upset stomach or migraine, taking a day off when you’re experiencing the symptoms of a mental health condition can help you to recover while minimizing disruption at work.
By the way, you don’t necessarily need to be diagnosed with a mental health condition in order to consider taking a day off work because of your mental health concerns.
Issues such as burnout, stress and mental exhaustion can all take a toll on your wellbeing and prevent you from performing at your best at work, even if they aren’t specifically featured in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as clinical disorders.
We have an article on how to recover from burnout if you need more tips.
Taking a day off work for mental health reasons can have numerous benefits, both for yourself, for your colleagues and for your employer. By taking a day off:
You’ll avoid affecting coworkers. Although your mental health status isn’t contagious like a cold or flu, certain symptoms of issues like anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder can and often do get in the way of maintaining a productive workplace.
Taking a mental health day isn’t just about helping yourself — it’s also about making sure your coworkers are able to focus and get things done in your absence.
If you need to talk with your provider, you can. Sometimes, the symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders can make an unwelcome comeback, even when you’re receiving treatment.
If you need to schedule an extra therapy session, taking a day off from work gives you the chance to get the help you need.
You’ll come back to work feeling better. There’s a reason you feel more focused at work after a vacation — research suggests that even a short period away from work is effective at reducing stress and improving wellbeing.
In the long term, you may be more productive. Research suggests that investing in mental health has a positive return for organizations in improved employee health and productivity.
The best time to ask for time off depends on your personal situation and needs. You may want to think about taking a mental break when your mental health symptoms become severe, or if you’re starting to feel burned out by work.
Common reasons to consider taking a mental health day include:
You have anxiety symptoms. Common symptoms of anxiety include finding it difficult to concentrate, being irritable or feeling fatigued. These symptoms may stop you from working effectively and make taking a day off a sensible decision.
You’re feeling depressed. As well as affecting your emotional health, depression can make it harder to focus on work, remember information, make important decisions and stay productive. Related read: Can depression make you sick?
You’re stressed. Stress often develops as the result of a busy environment that forces you to do a lot in a short period of time. You may feel like taking a day off after a crunch period at work that pushes you to your limits and results in feelings of stress.
You’re on the edge of burnout. Burnout is a common issue that could develop if your job is stressful or requires you to work for very long hours. If you’re beginning to notice the signs of burnout, taking a day off may help with burnout prevention.
You’re getting sick more often. Many illnesses, including the common cold, become more frequent or serious when you’re under stress. Taking a mental health day may help you to improve both your emotional wellbeing and your immune system.
Employers can vary a lot in their policies (and especially in the case of smaller businesses, their personal beliefs) towards taking time off to care for your mental wellbeing. Because of this, there isn’t any one-size-fits-all template that you can use to ask your boss for a mental health day.
If you feel comfortable informing your employer about your mental health needs and feel they’re likely to be supportive, the best approach is usually to be open and honest with them.
In this case, simply let your boss know that you’re feeling burned out, stressed or that you have a mental or behavioral health condition and would like to take a day away from work to deal with your symptoms.
If you think it’s necessary, don’t be afraid to give your boss a document from your mental health professional letting them know about your condition and personal needs.
Mental health issues are very common, and many experienced managers and other people in charge of operating teams will have dealt with similar situations to yours before. If you explain your needs clearly, there’s a good chance you’ll receive a positive response.
In addition to providing time off, your boss or human resources (HR) department might also inform you about any employee assistance programs (EAPs) that are available to you.
To make the process easier for your employer, try to prepare in advance (if possible) by taking the necessary steps to make sure your colleagues have any of the resources and other things they need to keep working effectively in your absence.
These days, many people are aware of the importance of optimal mental health, as well as the common nature and severity of many mental illnesses. However, not all employers view stress, burnout or mental health disorders as valid reasons for taking time off from work.
If your employer is old-fashioned or less understanding about mental health, you might need to approach things a little differently.
This could mean using one of your existing days off, or setting aside some of your time to care for your mental health on the weekend or a public holiday.
Alternatively, it’s fine to call in sick and let your employer know that you’re not feeling your best without making mental health the focus of your call. If you opt to call in sick, it might help to talk about the physical symptoms of your mental health issue, not the mental or emotional ones.
In certain cases, you might be legally entitled to request a flexible work or break schedule, later starting times, the ability to work from home or other accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
This act prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities, including mental illnesses, that substantially limit one or more major life activities.
There are conditions to the ADA, including the type of employer you work for and your ability to perform your job functions. If you qualify, it could be a valuable legal resource for coming to an agreement with your employer about your mental health-related rights as an employee.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a detailed page with further information on the laws that protect you at work if you have a mental illness and require certain accommodations.
Everyone is different, meaning there’s no “perfect” way to spend a mental health day. You might benefit from staying at home and getting some rest, getting out and spending time outside your normal work environment or doing something completely different.
To get the most out of your mental health day, try the following:
Get some physical activity. Exercise can provide numerous benefits for your physical and mental health, including releasing chemicals that reduce stress. Consider a walk, bike ride or other workouts to get your heart pumping and your mind feeling its best.
Spend time in nature. Spending time in nature can have real benefits for your mental and physical health, including reducing everyday life stress, improving your mood and reducing your risk of developing psychiatric disorders.
You can combine this with the above tip by taking part in fun mental health activities like going for a walk in a city park, mountain biking, hiking on a local trail or just relaxing in your yard with a good book.
Take part in a meditation or yoga class. Meditation and yoga are both great ways to spend your mental health day de-stressing. Several studies have found that meditation may help to improve anxiety and depression.
Although research is mixed on the relationship between yoga and mental health, some studies suggest that it may be helpful for anxiety associated with various life situations, as well as general life stress.
Do something mentally stimulating. Sometimes, the key to avoiding burnout at your job is to stimulate your mind on your days off. Try visiting the museum, an art gallery or any other environment that makes you feel creative and inspired.
Spend time with friends and family. Social isolation can seriously harm your mental health.Research suggests that it could even contribute to early mortality. If you feel lonely, reach out to friends and family members to spend your day off together.
Enjoy a relaxing at-home day. There’s no shame in taking it easy. In fact, self-care is essential for your mental health. If you’re stressed and overworked, spending a day at home in your pajamas with a good book, TV series or game could offer real benefits.
Talk with your mental health provider. If you need expert help dealing with a mental health disorder or other concerns, spend part of your day talking to your psychiatrist or therapist about steps that you can take to feel better.
Avoid alcohol, substance abuse or other unhealthy methods of coping. These may make you feel better in the short term, but they can potentially make depression, anxiety and other mental health issues worse.
Taking a mental health day away from work can help you to come back to the workplace feeling more energized and mentally healthy.
However, if you have an ongoing mental health or lifestyle issue, such as depression, anxiety or excessive stress, it’s best to talk to a mental health professional about long-term treatments.
You can get mental health help by asking your primary care provider for a referral, reaching out to a mental health specialist in your city or connecting with a licensed provider from home using our online mental health services.
Depending on your symptoms and needs, your mental health provider may recommend therapy, medication or a combination of approaches.
You can learn more about these treatment options in our complete guides to psychotherapy and common mental health medications.
Mental health issues are exceptionally common, and your workplace culture can either make it easier to deal with them or potentially make them more severe and debilitating.
If you think you need a day off work to deal with stress, burnout or a mental health disorder, it’s okay to ask. Use the techniques above to reach a working agreement with your boss and make the most of your self-care time.
For more information about caring for your mental health, be sure to check out our free mental health resources and content, which share proven, evidence-based strategies for dealing with everything from stress to anxiety, depression, sleep issues and more.