Is Taking a Mental Health Day Actually Good for You?

If you’re in need of a little mental health TLC, you’re not alone

Unmotivated woman at desk

Lack of motivation. Irritability. Zero interest in work or activities you once enjoyed. Feeling overwhelmed and like you’ll never check off everything on your to-do list…

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Sound familiar?

Burnout and declining mental health is all around us. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, almost 44 million adults in the U.S. experience mental health issues in a given year. And the No. 1 most common mental illness in the U.S.? Anxiety disorder.   

Work. Deadlines. Traffic. Being the perfect spouse or parent. Constantly being connected and available. All of these things can contribute to feeling overwhelmed, anxious and burnt out.  

The good news here? The idea of preventing burnout through a “mental health day” has become part of the conversation and people are starting to take note.

“Mental health has been stigmatized for so long,” says clinical health psychologist, Amy Sullivan, PsyD, ABPP. “Fortunately, people are starting to realize that mental health is just as important as physical health and burnout is a very real part of it.”

What is burnout?

Sure there are plenty of physical signs of burnout, but many clues come from your emotional state. One of the biggest roles in preventing burnout is being insightful and honest about how you’re feeling.

Signs of burnout can include:

  • Irritability & quick temper.
  • Withdraw from things that used to be fun and meaningful.
  • Constantly feeling anxious.
  • Feeling detached from both work and others.
  • Cynicism.
  • Lack of motivation or focus.
  • Feeling exhausted.
  • Lack of self-care: exercise and nutrition.
  • Feeling physically sick.

If you’ve identified yourself as entering burnout territory, the next question to ask yourself is what do you need? Do you need rest? Do you need a change of scenery? Do you need time alone or one-on-one time with your spouse? Or maybe you’ve been feeling so overwhelmed the past couple of weeks that you just need to have a little fun.

Learn to recognize your “burnout cycle”

Each person has a different and unique burnout cycle. The challenge is figuring out when you need to take action to prevent it and what you need to do to recharge.

“Pay attention and be insightful about your mental health,” says Dr. Sullivan. “Figure out when during the year you’re most prone to burnout. Mine is about every four months, so I’m proactive about scheduling a day off when I hit that time period.”

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Do you know when you’ll be finishing up a big project at work? Racing to make a deadline? If you’re intuitive, you can start to strategize and prioritize mental health by scheduling in days to focus on yourself.

But preventing burnout is key. You don’t want to keep putting yourself on the back burner until it’s too late and you find yourself already in full-on burnout mode.

Does running errands count as a mental health day?

For most people, a mental health day should be a true 24-hours, says Dr. Sullivan. But everyone is different in the aspect of what recharges and rejuvenates them. For those who haven’t reached burnout yet and are simply working to prevent it, an hour walk in the woods might be exactly what they need. 

For busy parents or individuals, carving out a day to run errands or schedule appointments might be a great mental health day.

For one person a mental health day means going to yoga and spending time at the spa. For someone else it could be spending the day with their family.

“It’s about shutting down that sympathetic nervous system response (that’s what governs your ‘fight or flight response,’)” says Dr. Sullivan. “Whatever makes you feel most grounded and in control.”

So you took a mental health day, but still don’t feel better

To prevent burnout, a long run or day at the beach might be all one person needs to feel rejuvenated. But for someone who has already reached burnout status, an hour or even a full day might not be enough.

So how do you know when something deeper than burnout is going on?

“If you’ve taken a few days off and feel no improvement, be aware that there might be some underlying issues happening here,” says Dr. Sullivan.

Depression looks different on everyone, but a hallmark sign is loss of interest. When feeling ‘blah’ starts to have no end — it’s time to talk to your doctor.

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Why employers need to care about mental health

“Anxiety is on the rise and people are starting to take note and seek help for themselves,” explains Dr. Sullivan. “A lot of companies are starting to understand that they need to protect and take care of their employees.”

Having regular check-ins with your employees or boss to see how everyone is doing and feeling is a great start. Employers need to be open and interested in preserving their workers and making sure everyone is healthy.

We have to take a lesson from the airline industry, says Dr. Sullivan. When they go over the safety procedures they instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen mask before they take care of anyone else. With burnout, this is first and foremost. There should be no shame in taking a mental health day.

“The more we talk about it, the more we normalize it,” says Dr. Sullivan. “Being aware of your mental health is not abnormal. Declining mental health is a national epidemic.”  

And although burnout, anxiety and stress happens everywhere, some research hints that it takes a toll on Americans the most. 

Dr. Sullivan’s advice?

Be mindful in conversations. Don’t think about what’s for dinner or what you have to do in 10 minutes. Check-in with yourself often and use your five senses to enjoy the moment you’re in.

Her other advice? Take that mental health day already. You can tell when you need it most.

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