I can still taste the frantic guilt of taking an actual sick day—fevered and bedridden—in the earlier years of my career. It's a hard feeling to shake, even as a vocal proponent of mental wellness. And it's no wonder since our culture has spent thousands of years condemning this very human need as weakness.
"The stigmatization of mental health follows a long and winding path, dating at least as far back as ancient Greece," says Heather Silvestri, a New York City–based psychologist. "The stigma is so pesky that even something as obviously valid as taking a mental health day can raise eyebrows in the current marketplace. In fact, when we refer to our mental health, we are acknowledging the existence of an internal world that needs tending and care, and the sheer idea of that often makes people uncomfortable."
The irony (especially for those prone to perfectionist tendencies or impostor syndrome, like me) is that caring for these needs ultimately allows us to feel more stable and do better in the world. "We disregard our mental health at our own peril because, ironically, illusions of invulnerability tend to cause us to be even more at risk for breaking down," says Silvestri. Because we've spent so many centuries prioritizing the concrete over the abstract—our physical maladies over our mental world—we're only just beginning to shed the false implications of emotional wellness. In reality, taking a day for your mental health is just as invaluable as recouping from a bad cold.
Keep reading to learn how to remove guilt from the equation and take an optimal mental health day.
Know how to tell if you need a day off
If you've never prescribed yourself a mental health day before, it can be tricky—and even counterintuitive—to assess the signs that you need one. When you're feeling unmotivated or scattered, it might be your first instinct to double down at the office and push yourself even harder, but the truth is that this only leads to more burnout. Particularly for the workaholics among us, it takes a lot of self-awareness to interrupt that cycle with a timeout.
"Telltale signs that a mental health day is indicated include decreased motivation, productivity, efficiency, and morale," says Silvestri. An increase in silly mistakes at work and chronic morning dread are also red flags. Either way, it's key to take stock of these things with curiosity and without judgment. "If we take that proverbial hot minute to take our own internal-needs temperature, then that reading goes a long way toward guiding our actions toward maximal productivity—if, and only if, we listen," she says.
Try not to let guilt be a factor
It would be disingenuous to suggest that, even in this day and age, we can ignore the stigma of taking a mental health day entirely. "I'm actually going to call it a brave act," says Silvestri. History teaches us, she says, that anyone doing so is at "risk of being branded any number of pejorative things, which, in the marketplace, could work against your standing and advancement."
Fortunately, there is a shift—particularly in startup culture—that emphasizes just how positive taking that time off is, not just for personal health but ultimately for the better of your work (and in turn, the company). "In my experience as a clinician overseeing many a mental health day, openly, straightforwardly, and unapologetically narrating your needs and your plan for addressing them tends more often than not to be received as refreshing and, moreover, to garner respect," says Silvestri. "In short, if we each took enough mental health days, we would be a better, more honest, more productive, more efficient, more formidable society."
In other words, try to reframe your mental health day not as a selfish act but as a necessary and proactive means to being a better employee (and citizen of the world). "Rather than feeling guilty, those of us brave and informed enough to take enough mental health days to protect our productivity and performance ought to consider ourselves trailblazers and example setters," reiterates Silvestri. "We need more of those."
(But also plan ahead if possible)
While certain circumstances might call for a spontaneous personal day, it's ideal for everyone involved to plan for it ahead of time. "That way, you're not stressed about the workload and what a last-minute absence will mean for your co-workers," says Silvestri. Doing so will also help mitigate any residual guilt that you won't be at the office.
Give yourself exactly what you need that day, without judgment
Once you've overcome the hurdle of actually taking that time off for yourself, it's time to turn your focus on making the most of it. That doesn't necessarily mean taking an A-student approach of meditating, journaling, and generalized navel-gazing either. Instead, choose activities that you know will charge your batteries, even if it's just vegging out and falling asleep to Netflix.
"The most legit mental health day is any day in which you use your self-awareness to guide your refurbishing activities—even purposeful couch planting—as your psychologically astute and necessary plan for the day," says Silvestri. "It doesn't matter actually whether your day is intended as a catch-up day, e.g., cleaning out your closet, doing your taxes, even scrubbing your bathroom floor, or a maximizing refresh filled with a mani/pedi and a great book."
This is why it's important to take judgment and guilt out of the equation. "It is just as counterproductive and unfulfilling to eat ice cream but brand the experience as 'bad' as it is counterproductive to take a day off from work and censure yourself for taking the pause," she adds. "Your difficulty owning what you deserve renders your efforts null and void."
That said, it's also useful to have your good-mood tool kit handy—that is, the list of self-care activities that never fail to support your mental health. If you've been feeling scattered and stressed lately, for example, then maybe a hike is exactly what you need to clear your head. If you've been feeling down, then journaling might help you sort through those feelings.
Above all else, the point is to be intentional about putting yourself first. This, says Silvestri, is the antidote to feeling overwrought or drained in your daily life. "Any activity or even lack thereof can reset your motivation and energy systems," she says. "It all depends on your self-knowledge so you actualize your true needs without judgment and with an affirmative sense of deserving the reset."
Next up: Learn how to build a good-mood tool kit (and why it's a total game changer).