Should You Consider Taking A Mental Health Day?

You wouldn’t hesitate to take a sick day if you were feeling physically unwell, but what about if you were feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed? There’s still a huge stigma about taking a day off for mental health reasons, but, according to psychotherapist Anna Mathur, it’s never been more important. We sat down with her to find out more.

First – what exactly is a mental health day?

“People have been taking mental health days for years without recognising what they actually are. It’s that point of burnout when you call in sick – it’s that feeling when you think you have nothing left to give and just need a day to reset. While you should feel the agency to take a day like this without shame or guilt, there is still a huge stigma attached to taking a day off for our mental health. People are taking increased amounts of sick days, but so many of them are actually to do with mental health, not physical health – we tell our boss we have a tummy bug when so often we are actually feeling overwhelmed, anxious and in need of a re-set. In fact, recent statistics from the BBC show that in 2018, 15.4 million days were lost to work-related stress. I can relate to this – I used to work in advertising and remember so clearly going into an approval meeting and just bursting into tears. I was told that if I worked harder, I’d get a promotion – it seemed totally unthinkable, I was so stressed and feeling completely burnt-out. We’re always trying to prove we are coping well, particularly in the workplace, but the cost is hidden. And now, the work/life boundaries are in an even worse place than before – the lines are increasingly blurred and we need to destigmatise mental health days now more than ever.”

How can you talk to your boss about taking a mental health day?

“While there are no official rules, some companies do offer them – for example, some employers offer, say, two mental health days a year, whereas others say you need to use your allocated sick days. If you are worried about talking to your boss about your mental health, start with acknowledging what your fear is – are you worried they won’t understand, or will perhaps question your ability to do your job? Remember you never have to go into detail – there’s no need to tell your manager your entire life story. You simply need to say you need a day at home to re-set. In fact, if this becomes the new way of working, or something that is expected in the working space, our efficiency will increase. We live on a burnout rollercoaster, constantly overstimulated and giving emotional resources we just don’t have, and then we crash. It’s like a car hurtling down a hill – you can either let it crash, or you can put the brakes on. You can either choose to implement rest or suffer the consequences, and employers should understand and empathise with this.”

What are the signs you could benefit from taking a mental health day?

“One of the first signs you are heading towards mental burnout is resentment – in the workplace, this could manifest as resentment towards your colleagues, or even the work itself. Also keep an eye on your irritation levels – being irritated is a key sign you are feeling overwhelmed. It could be something as simple as getting a text from a friend asking you to meet up, and this kickstarting an emotional wave of irritation and overwhelm. To rationalise intrusive thoughts, we need energy, so when we are living from a place of burnout, self-sabotage and a desire to retreat will happen, as well as a desire to avoid communication. Also look out for your internal dialogue (i.e. how you are speaking to yourself and internal thoughts) – when this turns negative, it is a sign you are feeling overwhelmed. Your sleep can also be an indicator of how you’re feeling – if you are waking up earlier than usual, or throughout the night, this is a sign of raised cortisol. If you are feeling depressed, however, it’s not uncommon to feel constantly tired. Remember any change in sleep pattern is worth investigating.”

You can either choose to implement rest or suffer the consequences, and employers should understand and empathise with this.

What should you do on a mental health day?

“A mental health day shouldn’t be treated like a traditional ‘sick day’, where you stay in bed all day in your PJs. If we rest with intention, it can look very different to resting passively. Lying on the sofa all day watching Netflix may feel good, but is it actually nourishing you? This is what we refer to as numbing behaviour – these types of activities switch off the brain and allow us to shut off from our emotions, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Instead, we should be thinking about engaging in active rest. If you want to watch some TV, do so for a couple of hours, and then do something proactively restful – perhaps go for a walk or call a friend. I like to compare passive versus active rest to a fast food meal versus a four-course gourmet feast – one will nourish and satisfy you, while the other will just fill a hole. Try to get into the habit of noticing what you need – we so often try and shut off our feelings. Check in with yourself twice a day, whether on a mental health day or not, and have solutions ready to be able to react to your feelings. Feeling lonely? Connect with someone. Feeling stressed? Head out for a walk. Try and tune in with your actual needs – for example, if you run every day, it may be that you need is rest and yoga. Remember that what’s right for one isn’t necessarily right for another.”

Is it okay to take time off for your mental health when you’re working from home?

“Absolutely – in fact, the boundaries are being flattened more than ever and it’s never been more important to create a work/life balance. Especially when working from home, we are exposed to ‘micro-stresses’ that mean our brain is constantly engaged – for example, if you check your emails before bed at 11pm, this will ‘micro-stress’ you, and these things add up. It’s the emotional equivalent of being sat at your desk, whatever the hour. When working from home, we definitely put more pressure on ourselves as we feel we have to prove something – there’s this feeling that people assume we may not be ‘working’ when at home. But, this means the boundaries have been turned upside down.”

How can you look after your mental health when working from home? 

“Try to be mindful of rest throughout the day – try to establish a curfew with your phone, turning off your emails at a set time, and remember that when you send an email out of working hours, a colleague could pick this up at 11pm, and this could trigger stress for them too. Always start your day with a positive mindset – always get dressed and try to get some fresh air before you sit down at your computer; even a walk around the block can help. If you aren’t commuting, use that time wisely – perhaps call a friend or read your book. Throughout the day, get outside as much as you can – try taking a call on a walk. Take the time for lunch, always sitting down to eat it properly – this will send signals to your brain that you are worthy of this meal, and this will nourish you. Also ensure you’re talking to people outside of work, too. Non-work voices are hugely important, and don’t be afraid to diarise calls with friends. I often do this a week or two in advance, and it can really help to keep you emotionally connected.”

Learn to see rest as recovery, and remember that it doesn’t need to be indulgent.

If you are worried about your mental health, who can you talk to?

“Some companies offer online counselling sessions, so be sure to check with your employer to see what they may be able to offer. Your GP can also refer you for a number of sessions, either remotely or online. If you want to go private, the Counselling Directory is a great resource for finding therapists – always read through a therapists’ website and see if you connect with them. It’s also worth knowing most therapists offer a couple of free introductory sessions, which is a great way of getting to know them and seeing if you feel comfortable with them. Six sessions could be all it takes to get you back to a better place – we just need to become more proactive in implanting these things.”

As we navigate this ‘new normal’, what are your golden rules for maintaining optimal mental health?

“Self-care is so important. We used to think of self-care as eating a healthy lunch or working out, but these types of activity actually fall under the bracket of self-respect – these are your basic needs. Self-care, on the other hand, is about acknowledging your internal dialogue and reacting to that. Notice how you are speaking to yourself – would you speak to your friends like that? Don’t be afraid to schedule rests and breaks in the working day, this is so important and is guaranteed to make you more productive. As we slowly start engaging in more social activities, also consider giving yourself an ‘out’ – we’ve just been through a global trauma and it’s understandable if you are feeling social anxiety. If you have been invited to a social occasion, don’t be afraid to say you will only come for half an hour, for example – there’s no need to rip off the plaster. Give yourself the grace to ease back in. If you are feeling overwhelmed, don’t underestimate the power of the breath – breathe in for four counts, and out for six, repeating a few times. You’ll feel the effects after just four breaths. Also learn to notice how you use the word ‘just’ – are you just going to reply to that email, or just pop to the shop? Notice whether you really need to do that thing at that moment, understanding that it could perhaps wait. This can really help reduce our daily stressors. Finally, learn to see rest as recovery, and remember that it doesn’t need to be indulgent.”
 

For more information visit AnnaMathur.com or follow her on Instagram @AnnaMathur. Anna’s book, Mind Over Mother, is published by Piatkus, priced £12.99.
 

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