One morning in September, Sarah Billington told her manager she had to go home for the day because she was feeling sick. But she didn’t have an upset stomach like she let on — she was on the verge of a breakdown.
The author and editor had been struggling with anxiety well before that moment, but according to her candid op-ed in the Huffington Post, she knew in that instant that powering through was no longer a viable option. So she played the sick card and took the day off. “I went home, removing myself from the situation that was making me spiral with anxiety and giving myself a chance to regroup, to curl up in bed for an afternoon and overcome the panic and negative self-talk.” Billington writes.
Billington opens up in her story about facing an unsettling matter in her personal life while juggling a slew of stressful tasks at a previous job. She’d had conversations with her then-manager about taking time to prioritize her mental health, but when it came time to request time off, her boss was less than understanding. “She found it inappropriate and unacceptable,” Billington writes. “[I ended up] feeling ashamed and anxious for having requested the time off.” Still reeling from that past experience, she lied. “I don’t want management thinking I’m incapable of doing my job. On the contrary, I’m actually very good at it,” Billington notes. And yet: “There is an unjustified stigma around mental illness in the workplace and in general,” she writes. “When someone takes a sick day because of a virus or the common cold, their absence isn’t considered evidence that they can’t handle their work.”
No one should make you feel guilty about prioritizing your well-being, and if we don’t speak up about mental health days, they’ll continue to be shrouded in shame. Taking a mental health day is important if you’re struggling, Thomas Plante, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Stanford University School of Medicine, tells Thrive Global. And by covering it up, you could also be hindering your well-being in the long run by turning to a short-term fix instead of dealing with an underlying issue head-on, Plante points out.
How to ask your boss for a mental health day:
Plante suggests being as specific as possible when you ask. We often refer to our mental struggles in vague terms because we don’t want to disclose too much in the workplace, but perhaps if your boss knew you were using the afternoon to recharge in the outdoors or go to a therapy appointment, she could become less skeptical of what the day actually means to you. Also, work on phrasing the request to let your manager know that you’re taking this time so you can come back mentally stronger, refreshed, and in a better place to be productive at work.
That being said, “Mental health days can help in the short term, but they might not help in the long term if there’s a bigger problem to be addressed,” Plante says. “A day off can help, but it also might be indicative of a larger issue,” he says, and if you suspect that’s the case, it’s better to consult with a therapist.
If you still feel the need to lie, ask yourself these questions:
If you’ve tried the above tactics but your boss is not accepting, or you still feel the need to lie about taking a mental health day, you may need to take a broader look at your workplace conditions and if they’re healthy for you, Plante suggests. When you’re already feeling overwhelmed, ignoring a deeper workplace issue can often add fuel to the fire, so it’s important to assess the nature of your office environment.
1. Is your workplace civil?
“Your work environment affects your bottom line. It affects your productivity, your well-being, and your overall health,” says Plante. If your office feels like a toxic environment, consider switching teams, raising a particular problem to HR, or even going elsewhere, says Plante. “Civility is key when it comes to company culture,” he notes. (Here at Thrive, compassionate directness is a key cultural value.) “Everybody needs to be treated with respect, compassion, and reverence. If that’s not happening, that’s a problem.”
2. Can you have a conversation about your workload?
It’s one thing to feel like your plate is too full, but it’s another thing to stay quiet about it if you’re feeling overwhelmed. According to Plante, corrective feedback is important when it comes to your well-being, both from employer to employee, and vice versa. Just like you’d want your manager to be honest with you, it’s vital to openly communicate if you feel like you’re hitting a wall. “Creating a culture of care starts with the employees,” Plante points out. “Don’t ignore the power of corrective feedback.”
3. Do you need more than a mental health day?
Feeling like you need an occasional break is normal, but if you have to lie about what’s going on inside, you might need more than a day off, Plante says. According to a 2018 APA survey, taking time off helps workers recharge, but the mental benefits that come from taking a brief vacation tend to fade within a few days of returning to work. In fact, 42 percent of participants of the organization’s well-being survey admitted they usually “dread” returning to work after a break. If you’re struggling with intense stress and anxiety, seeking professional help will probably help you more than a mental health day here and there. Remember that there’s no shame in reaching out when you don’t have the answers yourself.