When you’re feeling awful physically, it’s hard enough to justify taking a day off to the voice inside your head. ‘You’re just being lazy,’ it tells you. ‘Everyone will be angry.’
When you feel rubbish mentally, it feels impossible. There’s no easy way for you to point to evidence of how you’re feeling, no sniffly nose or cough your boss can hear over the phone, no nipping to the loos to vomit to prompt your deskmate to tell you to bloody well go home, no dodgy takeaway you can blame for the gurgling in your stomach.
Add to that the awkwardness of admitting that you’re struggling, and this struggle can feel insurmountable. Hence why we end up forcing ourselves to go work and stare at a screen while we’re mentally in a pit. It’s hard because there are no clear, defined guidelines to say when you’re mentally unwell ‘enough’ to take a day off.
When it comes to physical illness, I’ve always said that if I’m throwing up, I’m definitely not going into work. There’s no easy marker like that for mental illness. But that doesn’t mean we should be forcing ourselves to work, day in, day out, when our mental health isn’t great. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and mental health sick days are just as valid as any day you’d take off for the flu.
So, because I know that sometimes, we need an official checklist so we feel alright taking the day off, here are some signs that it’s completely okay to take a mental health sick day.
You’re dreading going into work
While it’s fine to just, well, not be in the mood to work, if the idea of walking into the office is filling you with absolute despair, that’s an issue. Have a think about what’s causing it – is it stress, excessive workload, bad relationships with colleagues – and work out what needs to be done to make it better. But if you need to take a day to get away from a stressful environment and work out what to do, that’s completely fine.
You can tell your mental health would stop you from working to your best ability
If physical health was impairing your work, you’d take time off – the same should go for mental health. Maybe your anxiety is overwhelming to the point that you can’t focus, maybe you’ve completely lost your motivation to get things done, maybe you’re feeling so run-down that you’ve noticed yourself making countless typos and little errors. Take the day off. Recharge, rest, talk to your therapist if you have one, and have a day of self-care.
You have an appointment
While most of us feel alright taking time off to go to a doctor’s appointment for a blood test, or visiting the dentist because they’re not open at the weekend, we feel like it’s not okay to do the same for appointments related to mental wellbeing: bookings with therapists, an appointment to talk about medication, time to top up your antidepressants. Go for your appointment. Take time off. It’s fine.
You’re struggling to get into work
If your mental illness is making it difficult to leave the house or get on public transport, it’s okay to call in sick or ask if you can work from home.
You need a day to be proactive
Sick days shouldn’t be taken whenever you feel anxious or low, as this can set you up for a pattern of avoidance, telling your brain that it’s right, things are too scary to overcome. So regularly taking days to stay in bed won’t be helpful. What will be helpful, though, is taking a day to get on top of things when you can tell your mental health is having a longterm dip.
Take a day if you need to work out how you’re feeling, make calls to your GP, rest up, and plan ahead. If you can tell going into work will prevent you from doing that essential stuff and end up sending you towards burnout, you shouldn’t go in.
Basically, you need to ask yourself three questions…
- Is going into work going to make me feel better or worse?
- Will you do a good job at work today?
- Do you really need to be at work today?
Once you’ve decided that yes, actually, you do need to take a sick day for your mental health, next comes the tricky bit – actually asking for the day off.
Here’s what you need to know.
If you have longterm mental health issues, talk to your boss face-to-face
It’s important that your boss has an understanding of what you’re going through, and will be prepared if you need to take the occasional day off to deal with things. If you’re struggling, shoot your boss an email to say you need a few minutes to discuss mental health in private.
Don’t stress, you don’t need to pour your heart out or reveal all your deepest secrets. It’s just about explaining what’s going on, asking for what you need, – whether that’s days working from home, time off for an appointment, or leaving early once a week for therapy – and making sure your boss is understanding.
If your boss doesn’t make you feel supported, raise the issue with HR.
‘Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a legal duty to provide reasonable adjustments for an employee who has a disability, which can include a mental health problem if it has a substantial, adverse, and long term effect on normal day-to-day activities,’ Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, tells metro.co.uk.
‘Typically, when it comes to mental health problems, these are small, inexpensive changes, such as more regular catch ups with managers, change of workspace, working hours, or breaks.’ If your boss isn’t supportive and HR aren’t much help, give Mind’s legal line on 0300 466 6463.
It’s okay to lie if it’s a one-off…
Don’t feel guilty if you’re more comfortable telling your boss you have food poisoning than having a chat about mental illness. It’s a shame that there’s still so much awkwardness around talking about mental health, but if you’re not up for chatting about it, it’s not your responsibility to change things when you’re feeling rubbish.
Give yourself permission to blame the flu if you’re not quite ready to be honest to your boss. That’s totally fine as long as it’s a one-off sick day. If they’re a more regular occurrence, it’s probably time to open up.
…but it’s also brilliant to openly say that you’re taking time off for mental health reasons
‘We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,’ explains Emma. ‘Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.’
Openly telling your boss about mental health can start an important conversation about mental wellbeing in the workplace, and open the door for other people to speak up, too.
Remember that your needs are valid
When you call up your boss and ask for the day off, you don’t need to exaggerate or downplay what’s going on, make excuses, or defend yourself. You’re not doing well, and you’ve made an adult decision about needing to take some time out of the office. That’s fine. ‘Sick days can and should be used for a mental health problem, just as for a physical health problem, if it’s severe enough that someone needs time off,’ says Emma. Your need for a day to yourself is acceptable, normal, and nothing to feel guilty about.
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