This past summer, Madalyn Parker, a Michigan web developer tweeted out her boss’s supportive response to her need for a couple of mental health days. The tweet went viral in our collective version of a mouth drop. Most bosses and managers are usually not so understanding. Parker’s tweet generated discussion about the need to destigmatize mental illness and emotional health needs in the workforce and when it is appropriate to take time off. But if you are able to dip out, how should you go about it?
For most of us, “calling out sick” is often a spontaneous, game-time refusal of our morning buzzer. When it comes to your mental health, instead of game-time decisions, you may be better off with a game plan. Pulling a full Ferris Bueller might be a bit over the top, but mental health experts say sometimes you may need something more than an unscheduled Netflix binge in your pajamas.
“I like the idea of planning time off so you can proactively take care of your mental health rather than getting burned out,” says Amy Morin psychotherapist and author of the international bestseller 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do who just released her latest book geared toward parents under the same title. “If you are starting to feel like you are getting frazzled or like your stress level is high, start planning and think about what would be most helpful to your needs.”
To get the most out of your time off, create a checklist:
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1. Learn the signs you need time off. Being too distracted to perform at work because of mood or looming external pressures should be your biggest red flag. Shani Graves, a New York City-based licensed mental health counselor also suggests tracking the impact of day-to-day pressures. “Try to pay attention to how your body and brain react to cycles of stress. Do you typically have deadlines on Thursdays or big meetings on Tuesdays that trigger worry or anxiety? That may be an indicator of when it is time for some additional self-care,” says Graves who is also part of the Therapy for Black Girls and Lighthouse LGBTQ wellness networks.
2. The same goes for freelancers! When you work independently stepping away from work can feel like slacking or a waste of time. Try not to go down that rabbit hole. “For a lot of people, there is guilt and anxiety when you don’t get paid when you take time off. When you are a freelancer your work and personal life run together easily, so it is hard to take time off,” says 13 Things author Morin. “So maybe set goals so you can feel good about taking a day off or schedule it so you have this one day to just play hooky and not worry about work. It gives you the incentive to be productive.”
3. If you aren’t your own boss, try not to freak out about requesting time off. Feeling as if you have to conjure a physical illness or make up an excuse can add stress on days you deserve a break. Legally employers can press for details or ask for a doctor’s note if you call in sick. But the Americans With Disabilities Act offers protections for employees with serious mental health needs where your employer should expect you to return to work but shouldn’t question you beyond your ability to perform job-related functions. Examine your company policy or aim to take un-used personal or vacation days. When in doubt, Morin suggests avoiding going into too much detail when requesting time off. “We don’t question days for physical illness. You know your job, your boss, and what is going to be best. It would all be great if we could proactively do this and know we have the support of our bosses. Say it is a personal day or you have some family things going on, or you are going to take care of some health issues and leave it as vague as that because you didn’t mention if it was a physical health issue or a mental health issue.”
4. Figure out what you need out of a mental health day. “As a psychotherapist, I work with a lot of people who have depression who just don’t want to get out of bed and then it backfires. So you have to say, what do I need? Maybe it is yoga. Some people may feel like it is refreshing to clean out their closets or get their life organized. I like to exercise whether it is going for a walk in the woods, hiking or running. Ask yourself what you need to feel refreshed and better for the next day,” says Morin. “Sometimes you may need more than one day because a day can go by fast and it takes time to unplug, unwind and shift gears.” Both Morin and Graves agree the easiest rule of thumb is to do things outside of your normal routine — simple, relaxing activities you might not normally do like guided meditation, massage or therapy.
5. If it works for your budget, explore local spots promoting wellness. In New York City, there are two trending locations which have the word “chill” literally built into them – Chill Space NYC where you can try vibey treatments like $99 float therapy and Chillhouse where you can grab a $5 Golden Latte, $15 polish change, and/or $45 express massage. I dipped into a salt cave – Montauk Salt Cave where they claim 45 minutes of surrounding yourself with Himalayan salt and breathing in its particles can make you feel like you’ve spent five days at the beach. It’s not scientifically proven — but I couldn’t get to a beach, and the supposed anti-inflammatory properties of the $45 treatment seemed like it was having the desired calming effect.
6. Don’t skip on self-care on your non-skip days. “Sometimes we plan a day off or we take a sporadic day off weeks later but the stress has been building up. So when that day off comes we are unable to get out bed or do anything because we haven’t taken the time to practice some form of self-care as the days and weeks go by,” cautions Graves. Aim to do small things to tide yourself over until your next mental health day. “Try creating a routine where you cook once a week instead of eating out. If you spend time watching TV but not relaxing maybe you read a chapter in your favorite book. I also encourage my clients to try 5 minutes of breath therapy every day. It doesn’t have to be some long, drawn-out Zen meditation. A lot of us hold our stress in by not breathing. You need to release that.”
Like with most things, having a plan of action in place may be the long-term adjustment you need for prioritizing emotional well-being.
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