How to ask for a mental health day from work—because we all need one

By Susan Lahey

Published August 7, 2020
Last updated September 21, 2021

The day is coming when employees will be shocked to learn that their predecessors couldn’t just declare a mental health day from work whenever they needed one. Our habit of cloaking emotional recovery days as “a cold” will be considered a horrifying relic of a barbaric time, like when women were required to wear skirts and heels, or when employees had to ask permission for a bathroom break. But today, despite progress, many managers and co-workers still aren’t comfortable with the information that their colleagues are having mental or emotional, versus physical, issues that require a day off. It’s time to get real about the fact that heartbreak and overwhelm are just difficult aspects of being human, right along with the flu and carpal tunnel syndrome.

One positive from COVID-19 is that our shared humanity is showing more than ever. We are no longer able to shed our home lives and put on our “work” selves for the office, and then switch back afterward. This gives us a chance to realize that all of us are frail in some ways and struggle with stuff—mental, emotional, physical, financial, relational. Anxiety is often connected with intelligence and creativity, and sometimes the things we struggle with make us better employees. I have a close friend, for example, who has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It makes her very effective at her job—she’s meticulous and catches errors others miss. But every few years something triggers a really difficult bout and she can’t function for a few weeks. Her taking that time to cope with her OCD is no different from someone having a really bad case of the flu. But it’s hard for her to have to explain to her boss why she’s not able to come in, or get much done at home. Her boss is understanding, though clearly uncomfortable, which she finds embarrassing. It’s like the old days, when women had to take off work for unspeakable “lady problems” and everybody got weird about it. We need to get beyond that discomfort.

[Related read: Talking about mental health at work, now part of the employee experience]

All humans need mental health days

Adam Waytz, a research psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, wrote a book called The Power of Human: How Our Shared Humanity Can Help Us Create a Better World about his research into our growing dehumanization of one another. He attributes it to a few factors: one is that we’ve replaced our reliance on each other with our reliance on technology. Another is that we have “marketized” people. Robots never get depressed (barring Marvin in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). But people can become anxious, depressed, lonely, and burned out; the flip side of that is that we are capable of creativity, insight, empathy and moral judgment that robots aren’t capable of. We can quantify the value of a robot who can collect a certain amount of data or crank out a certain number of parts per minute, but we can’t really quantify the value of creativity or emotional contribution to a team. Still, when humanity’s dark sides show up, we tend to value employees less.

Anxiety is often connected with intelligence and creativity, and sometimes the things we struggle with make us better employees.

“When humans are marketized, their worth is determined by their market worth, not their inherent dignity as human beings,” Waytz said in an interview. “Everything, including the employee’s mental health becomes secondary to how much they can produce for the bottom line.” For example, many people champion the cause of liberal immigration policies citing the economic gain immigrants can bring rather than the fact that they’re fellow humans suffering a crisis.

We’ve also emphasized individualism to the point where we can accept or tolerate all kinds of differences, but we don’t necessarily want intimacy with those differences or responsibility for carrying one another’s burdens. “You do you (and I’ll slip quietly out the back)” is a common mentality. That can be seen in some managers’ challenged response to an employee who needs a mental health break.

“The more people operate in an individualistic culture the more they are seen as responsible for themselves, and the less superiors feel an obligation to care about them. In other words, individual mental health is not seen as a collective concern,” Waytz said. “If you reversed this, and if you treated employee well-being as something the company itself values, then you could promote company-wide initiatives to encourage time off away from work.”

[Related read: Can burnout actually be good for you?]

Dropping the semantics of mental health sick days, and taking responsibility

At this point, most would argue that companies really ought to factor mental health days in as a given. In his article “The Futility of Mental Health Days,” Bernie Wong of Mindshare Partners notes that if we’ve hired good employees we really should just give people days off when they need them and stop nitpicking about whether it’s for mental or physical health or just to take the dog to the vet. But we should also recognize that a mental health day really isn’t going to do the trick.

We've also emphasized individualism to the point where we can accept or tolerate all kinds of differences, but we don't necessarily want intimacy with those differences or responsibility for carrying one another's burdens.

Mental health days, he notes, “may be useful to resolve challenges happening outside of the workplace, they do not address the workplace factors that have been shown to cause the development of mental health conditions and burnout, from poor management, lack of recognition or compensation, low social support, to high job strain.” Also “suggesting that a mental health day, in isolation, is an appropriate response from a manager to an employee who is facing burnout or symptoms of a mental health condition is irresponsible without a more comprehensive support system of proper benefits, resources, access to treatment, a flexible work environment, and an organizational culture that supports the mental health of all employees within companies. Mental health days are not a checkbox perk.”

And they should do a whole lot more. But since we’re still taking baby steps in this direction, the main question might be…

[Related read: How to support your remote team’s mental health]

How should you ask for a mental health day?

Some experts say you should absolutely feel free to take a mental health day and tell your boss you’re doing it. Others say it’s none of their dang business. No expert can tell you what to do because they aren’t speaking to your company’s particular culture and your manager’s attitude about mental health days. Only you know that. Experts do pretty universally say that if you’re a generally good employee and you’re responsible on the job, you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking a mental health day no matter what you call it. You owe your employer your labor, your effort, your commitment as long as you’re employed. You don’t necessarily owe them all your personal information.

No expert can tell you what to do because they aren't speaking to your company's particular culture and your manager's attitude about mental health days. Only you know that.

Tips for asking for a mental health day:

  • Keep the ask straightforward and professional. There's no need to get into the details.
  • Update your manager on the status of your work projects, with a plan for what you'll need help with and what you'll address upon your return.
  • If granted, leave work behind so that you can truly benefit from the time off and return to work feeling more rested and refreshed.

That said, if you do inform your boss that you’re suffering from an emotional or mental issue rather than the flu, tell them you need the day off in a matter-of-fact way, giving them whatever assurances they may need about impending projects or customer care gaps, and leave it at that. Just as you don’t need them to validate that your mental health day has a legitimate cause, they don’t need you to pull them into your inner world. Keep it professional. A good manager can show compassion without knowing the details.

[Related read: Therapy, like everything else, has moved online. And that’s a good thing]

Some employers will be very understanding and empathetic about the need to take a mental health day and you probably know if you’re employed by one of those companies. But you should still keep it professional unless your manager is also your bestie, who already knows all your issues. Otherwise save them for your therapist, friends, family, or the company-assistance program therapist.

There are a lot of aspects of being human we don’t bring to work willingly. People often don’t talk about very personal physical issues, relationship issues, problems with their kids or extended family, or their mental-emotional issues. That stuff is vulnerable and irrelevant to the work, generally, so it’s not necessary to bring it into the workplace; it is necessary that the workplace doesn’t devalue you as an employee for having these very natural human experiences or needing to attend to them.

Photo by Lisa Fotios