If you have a fever or a stomach flu, taking a day off from work to rest and recover is a no-brainer.
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The same rules should apply when you're not feeling well mentally. Indeed, taking a mental health day — a day off from work that's designed to help you de-stress — can be just as important as taking a sick day.
While one day might not resolve more serious, chronic mental health issues, it can provide your brain a much-needed break to regroup and reenergize.
Still, it can be challenging to know when you need to take time for yourself.
That's why we spoke with Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a NYC-based neuropsychologist and professor at Columbia University, to learn how to spot the subtle signs sent by your mind and body when they're ready for a respite. Plus, we provide pointers on how to approach the subject of a mental health day with your employer.
1. You’re More Irritable
Lashing out at loved ones lately? Overly cranky with coworkers? If you're uncharacteristically snappy or short with people, or you overreact to small things, you might benefit from a break.
"Mental exhaustion can present itself through irritability," Hafeez says. "And increased irritability may lead to unnecessary arguments with colleagues, family members and friends."
A day away might be just what the doctor ordered. "Release your inner frustration by enjoying a brisk walk or attending an exercise class you love," Hafeez recommends.
2. You Can’t Concentrate
If you feel like you're in a mental fog or your focus in flailing, it's probably time to reset.
"You may find that you are making careless mistakes at work or becoming more easily distracted than normal," Hafeez says. This happens when your brain is struggling to keep up with everything going on in your life.
"To get back on track, take a day off and bring your attention to your emotional wellbeing through meditating or practicing mindfulness," Hafeez says.
3. You’re Getting Sick Often
"If you find that you cannot get rid of a cold or other illness, it may be a sign that you are overworking your body," Hafeez says.
Yep, too much stress can make you sick. And when stress is chronic, your cortisol levels will remain high, which can contribute to serious health problems like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic gastrointestinal issues, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Hafeez's advice: Listen to your body. "You likely need to catch up on sleep and dedicate a day to your mental health," she says.
4. Your Usual Coping Mechanisms Aren’t Working
From a hot bath to a brisk walk, many of us have developed tried-and-true tricks to tackle daily stress. But when your go-to strategies still fall short, you probably need a longer pause.
Rather than squeezing in a quick stress-relieving activity, sometimes you must commit a full day to decompress and take care of yourself.
5. You’re Always Tired
"When you feel overworked and mentally exhausted, your sleep cycle may be interrupted," Hafeez says.
It's no secret that stress can sabotage sleep — anyone who's ever tossed and turned with worry knows that. "So even though you may be incredibly tired, your heightened stress levels will affect your ability to fall asleep or stay sleep through the night, which leaves you feeling tired and groggy," Hafeez says.
And it's a vicious cycle, because sleep problems can, in turn, increase stress and anxiety.
If you're persistently pooped, catching up on zzzs is a wonderful way to spend a mental health day.
6. You’re Not Feeling Refreshed After the Weekend
At one time or another, we've all wished the weekend would last a little longer. But if you dread Mondays more than usual, and you're still feeling weary after the weekend, you might need an extended break.
Spending weekends in work mode or worrying about the coming week will prevent you from relaxing and reenergizing.
But "ignoring the stress and frustration from the week can often make the situation worse too," Hafeez says. "If we live for the weekend and never sort out the problems we experienced during the week, the cycle will never end."
So, if the weekend isn't enough, pause and reflect. "Taking a day off to tend to our emotions and feelings will have a more significant impact than pushing your problems away during the weekend," Hafeez says.
How to Ask for a Mental Health Day
"Before you ask for a mental health day, analyze the nature of your work environment," Hafeez says. Some employers are more sympathetic to mental health concerns than others.
"If you feel that asking for a mental health day may not go over well with your boss, you don't need to be up front," Hafeez says. In other words, if your employer isn't supportive, simply take a sick day. "It is not necessary to explain your exact symptoms," she adds.
"However, mental health days are becoming far more accepted than they used to be," Hafeez says. "Many companies understand that work burnout exists and will be understanding if you explain that you need to take a day to yourself."
In fact, it's in your employer's best interest to protect your emotional wellbeing. For every dollar allocated to support mental health, there's a $4 return in work productivity, according to the World Health Organization.
Still, the decision to disclose your reasons for requesting a mental health day is a personal one. Do whatever makes you feel most comfortable — only you know what's best for your situation.