While “mental health days” have been part of the lexicon in companies for a while, that doesn’t mean they’re the norm among employees. Taking a day off to take care of yourself shouldn’t be seen as an emergency option.
“A crisis response may provide relief, but it’s not really prevention,” says Lloyd Sederer, medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health. “It’s about learning your own self-management, an ongoing steady attention to a healthy life.”
How do you know if you need one?
Workplace therapist Brandon M. Smith says to look for these signs:
1. You’re suddenly not sleeping well or have developed insomnia.
2. You can’t shake last week’s stress. In other words, your level of stress is greater than your current stressors.
3. You’re snippy with your spouse, your kids, or your coworkers.
4. You feel a general sense of apathy and don’t care about your work.
Even if you’re muscling through your schedule, lots of folks get cold feet when it comes to taking that needed three-day weekend.
Having worked with a range of Fortune 500 leaders, executive coach Margaret H. Greenberg says there are several reasons people — especially managers — don’t take mental health days.
Feeling anxious about stepping away. “People don’t take mental health days because of the anxiety it produces,” she says. “They think they can’t stay on top of things, that they will miss out on things. I had an executive tell me, ‘I don’t want to take vacation because I’ll come back and feel worse.'”
Thinking that you don’t “need” any time off. Say you set your own hours — like a freelance writer, independent consultant, or executive coach. That flexibility (and blurred boundaries) may make you feel like you don’t need to take a break — until you’re watching a movie with your family and sending email the whole time. The organizational psychology literature calls the separating of work and non-work segmentation, and it’s necessary for preventing burnout.
Keeping up with the perfectionism. Greenberg can spot a perfectionist; she says she’s a “recovering” one herself. If you won’t step away from the desk because you think things aren’t going to get done perfectly while you’re gone — which will be the case — then you might a perfectionist, too. But let’s recall sociologist Brené Brown’s advice: People don’t succeed because of their perfectionism, but despite it.
Worrying it will set your career back. “You might think that (taking a break) is a career derailer,” Greenberg says, that there are people waiting in line behind you who won’t take that Friday off. “What’s a bigger career derailer?” she asks. “When you’re no longer creative or innovative because you’re so burned out.”
Even organisations with extremely long hours are learning how to make recovery from work a part of their culture.
The most vivid example might be Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow’s intervention with the Boston Consulting Group, where the elite consultancy figured out a way to give team members predictable time off, an account of which she detailed in her book “Sleeping With Your Smartphone.” The takeaway: You can make it OK to take time off — if you put the structures in place.
The easiest thing is to just let your colleagues know in advance. If you put your three-day weekend on the calendar weeks ahead of time, everyone can schedule around it. That way it’s not a mental health crisis; it’s maintenance.