February 6, 2024

Can I take a day to look after my mental health?

Everyone needs to take a day off from time to time, whether that be due to our physical or mental health. On average 13% of us will have had at least one full day out of work each month, with neurological disorders, bipolar affective disorder, and post-traumatic stress being the leading cause of this absence (Alonso et al., 2011). Taking time off from work because you’re feeling unwell can be hard to do in practice. Taking time off from work to look after your mental health can be even more so. Being open and honest with your manager or co-workers when you’re struggling can be a daunting task, especially if you’re unsure on how this conversation will be received. I can’t help but wonder: should we be able to feel more comfortable calling in sick to get back on top of our mental health?

Absenteeism is defined as periods of time spent away from the workplace due to health concerns or personal reasons. Presenteeism relates to the levels of productivity whilst in work. More specifically, it can refer to the lack of productivity caused by being present at work when realistically we should have taken the day off sick. Research looking into the effects of presenteeism shows that attending work when you’re feeling unwell is a risk factor for future absenteeism. More specifically, presenteeism on five or more occasions is a risk factor for 30 or more instances of future absenteeism (Bergström, Bodin, Hagberg, Aronsson & Josephson, 2009). In addition, presenteeism can account for 18-60% of all the costs to employers caused by common physical and mental illnesses (Goetzel., et al 2004). Goetzel and colleagues (2004) also report that depression and other mental illnesses are the third highest economic burden on employers. Therefore, we would hope the concept of taking a mental health day every now and again to maintain our wellbeing, to be more widely accepted in the workplace.

One of the difficulties of taking a mental health day is being unsure of how or when it is acceptable to do so. When it comes to calling in sick with the flu or a stomach bug, there are generally guidelines to refer to which guide how to proceed. Not to mention there are national guidelines, which all employers must follow in relation to sick leave (see here). Most workplaces don’t have similar guidelines for mental health which can confuse things even further. The temptation can be to fake a cold or migraine when really you just need to put some space between yourself and the source of your distress. The most important factor is to ensure that you are able to stay on top of how you feel and try to recharge. If employers were more explicit on where they stand with days off for mental health purposes, this may encourage more honesty and openness from their employees.

If you’re considering taking a day off work to recuperate, it is important to consider how this decision will make you feel. If you need to take the day to gather your thoughts and figure out why getting out of bed and into work feels challenging, then it could be necessary to do so. However, taking several days off to stay in bed could also be unhelpful in the long run. If left unchecked this can become a cycle, which in turn could lead to more negative outcomes as time goes on. If you find yourself in this position, it is important to reach out to someone you can trust and talk to them about what’s going on.

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