Can you take a mental health day if you’re working from home? This is what the experts say

If you’re like many people who have been working from home for the first time over the past few months,  “the novelty has probably long worn off (if it ever existed), and you’re starting to long for the good old days of working from an actual office,” Associate Dean of Student Health and Counseling at Manhattanville College, Melissa Boston, Psy.D., shared via email. 

But how do we feel good taking a mental health day off, when we are already away from the office? You can help yourself feel empowered by aligning on monthly or weekly deliverables with your manager and by setting expectations for how many days of PTO per month are appropriate during this period. Have the conversation on your workload and time off monthly.

Wearing too many hats means too much stress

Unlike an office environment where work is the norm and you’re surrounded by colleagues when working from home, Boston said: “You may be wearing many hats, shifting from homeschooling your kids, jumping from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting, throwing in the laundry or taking out the garbage, and accommodating far more demands than you might typically have been when you were working in your office.” And the stress can be even more intense because you’re doing all these tasks simultaneously along with trying to work. 

You’re not the only one

But don’t panic, it’s not just you feeling this way. “You’re certainly not alone if you are having trouble separating from work, Boston explained. “You might be trying to relax and then remember in the midst of the chaos that was your day, that you forgot to do something; your laptop is in your direct line of sight and while you might try to resist the urge to resume working after hours, is there really after hours anymore? So, you get back to work. It is very difficult to separate work from home life when there isn’t a physical separation, and sometimes, especially these days, it can be just too much.” 

Why you might need a break

What you’re feeling is real, and acknowledging it isn’t a weakness, it might prove to be a lifesaver. “For a lot of folks new to working from home it can feel like playing office, said AJ Josephson, Head of People at Miro. “But it isn’t play, it’s serious work. Combine this with lockdown anxiety, and burnout is a threat.” And despite everyone talking about the new normal, all this enforced togetherness isn’t exactly normal. “We have all developed some new habits working at home but learning to take some time off is one we might have to relearn,” said Matthew Kerzner, Ph.D., Director at EisnerAmper’s Center for Individual and Organizational Performance.

And it’s no sign of weakness to realize this is something you need. Kerzner said that while “It is very hard to comment on how often one should take a personal day or a mental health day off. I always say you should listen to your mind/body.” He explained that “If you are tired, cannot focus, feel under the weather, or are feeling blue, these are all signs we might need to take a personal day off to recharge.” Once you do decide, don’t spend your day feeling guilty. “Avoid spending the time worrying about what you might be missing by taking the day off, or how much work you will have when you return,” Boston advised.

So, how do you take that break?  

Follow the usual guidelines

You’re still a working professional, even if you feel overwhelmed and frazzled. So, try not to disappear, but instead make a point of letting others you’re taking time off. Kerzner offered some tips on setting up your own wellness time off. 

  • Start at home: “Setting workplace boundaries in your home is critical,” he said, “to ensure you are able to shut off and shut down – to actually take that mental health day off.” 
  • Find small ways to relax: Kerzner also suggests even doing basic things to help “your mind relax, such as taking a nice long walk, a solo hike, or simply just relaxing in the sun.” 
  • Let people know: As for the OOO, that’s fine too. “It is okay to take a day off and actually put an out of office message both on your cell phone and on your computer, letting others know that you are taking a personal day off,” Kerzner said. “It is no different than taking a personal day from the office. Follow the same guidelines.

Still not sure of what to do with your day off? Josephson offered tips:

  • Cut off communications, including out-of-office messages, turning off messaging, and don’t check your email. 
  • Catch up on sleep. Start out the day with something different than your normal routine. Maybe it’s a slow breakfast, a socially distant walk, or a film. Josephson said, “Breaking your routine will give you a different perspective that can clear your mind and let you see new options when you return to work.”
  • Try journaling: Josephson believes “journaling and meditation are as important as exercise and healthy eating for restoring your energy and making a day off more than just a few away from your desk.” 

P.S. If you’re the boss or manager, find ways to make new policies that reflect what we’re all going through. “It is also key that organizations review their own policies regarding time off, and that leaders set good examples,” Kerzner said. Since “it can be difficult for an employee to decide to take time for their own mental health and self-care when they see senior leaders working late into the night, early in the morning and every weekend.”

Kerzner always suggests that senior leaders take a look at the messages that they are sending, particularly covertly, and how this might impact the feelings of engagement and connection from the rest of their team.  “If we want to encourage our team members to look after themselves, care for their emotional well-being and be refreshed and engaged in their work, then we need to model, with our behavior, our messaging and our policies, the type of work/life balance practices that will bring about these results,” he added.  

Rachel Weingarten is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.