While improvements are being made, discussing mental health is still taboo. That makes it difficult to ask for a “mental health day” — a day that allows you to address mental health issues, whether those be anxiety, burnout, or depression, in a space away from work.
Many Americans are too nervous to ask for a sick day when they are physically ill, let alone ask for one when they feel mentally unwell. That, experts say, is a reality that should change.
“I think one of the reasons why people really hesitate to take mental health days, or even ask for them, is because of the stigma that still exists around mental health,” Sonia Kang, an associate professor of organizational behavior and HR management at the University of Toronto, tells Inverse.
“Having to acknowledge or share your mental health struggles can be associated with guilt or shame, even if one may not hesitate to take time off because they have a physical illness.”
The confusion around the mental health day becomes compounded when one thinks of it as something that, in order to have, means meeting a certain list of criteria (more on that later). If you need to recover from major stress at work, are you just as entitled to a mental health day as someone whose anxiety is making it difficult to do their job?
In order for mental health days to work, both in practice and societally, companies — not the people asking for a mental health day — have to lead the way. They can do this in two ways.
Change the system
To help employees maintain good mental health, organizations have to set up a system that allows for better health, Kang says. Organizations should realize that employees already feel embarrassed and guilty about taking time for their mental health. If systems are designed where one has to spell out why they need the time, then, Kang says, “that will just amplify that stress.”
“You really have to think of mental health as simply health,” Kang explains. “It can’t be treated as something that’s exotic. You shouldn’t have to jump through any hoops to take time off for it and prove that something is going on.”
In an effort to put less pressure on why one needs to take time off, some companies are opting into offering “personal days,” Kang says. These can be taken if you have the flu, because you feel really stressed; because you need to take your kid to the doctor — whatever. You don’t have to justify them in any way.
And if your company isn’t using personal days yet, people should feel empowered to use a sick day as a day to deal with mental health.
“To me, that isn’t even a question,” Kang says.
Change their viewpoint
Lucy Thompson, an associate professor at Michigan State University and a feminist psychologist who studies work, tells Inverse that the argument for the mental health day generally misses the point. It puts the responsibility on individuals to care for their own health and happiness, rather than address why they may be experiencing those feelings in the first place.
"One mental health day here and there will not solve the problem."
Because workplaces largely don’t address organizational or social origins of distress, workers are “encouraged to essentially ‘take it outside’ and resolve their psychological suffering quickly and personally for the purposes of productivity.” And because the boundaries between work and home life are so blurred, one day away from the office will likely still carry spillover stress.
“If organizations genuinely want to address and respond to the psychological distress of their employees, they need to recognize and respond to these new realities,” Thompson says. “One mental health day here and there will not solve the problem.”
Kang agrees that, from a broader perspective, organizations could do more around destigmatizing mental health and creating a culture where mental health isn’t just talked about on certain days, but all the time. If mental health is seen as a *priority* at work, rather than an after-shock effect, then health, in general, will improve.
Taking a day to focus on your health can be a helpful critical decision — but steps have to be taken so that your health is supported when you come back to work, too.