What To Do When Your Work Doesn't Offer Mental Health Days

Though they haven't always been traditionally recognized in the workplace, we know now that mental health days are just as important as sick days. As the importance of mental health, and protecting our mental health, becomes more recognized, the truth about how many people are actually struggling is becoming increasingly prevalent.

Mental Health America's 2023 State of Mental Health in America survey found that around 50 million Americans are suffering from a mental health issue, though more than half of those haven't received any treatment. Though there is a slew of reasons why that may be, from stigma about speaking out to a lack of local mental health care, one of the big reasons that all too many people just don't have the time to take care of themselves is due to work commitments.

But what do you do if you need to take some time to yourself to keep your mental health in check, but your workplace doesn't recognize mental health or wellness days? Well, there are a few ways to make sure you're getting the time you need, because taking care of yourself should always be your number one priority.

Take a mental health moment

If your workplace doesn't offer full days off to allow you to look after your mental health, try taking a mental health moment instead. This can be any amount of time during the day when you take a step back from work and focus on yourself. For some people, doing something that makes you happy in your lunch hour, like a workout or a walk, may be enough to help you feel more balanced — as you should always take the time you're entitled to during the day! Radio DJ Clara Amfo even suggested to British Vogue dividing your lunch hour into four sections and doing something productive each 15 minutes. 

Some companies may be more willing to grant you an afternoon off to take care of yourself rather than a full day, which may be just enough time to help melt away any stress. Equally, this time may be even better done outside the workday. "We can fit a mental health day into a smaller piece that works for us. When we finish work, we can take an hour to ourselves to journal. Or maybe on a day off or when we can't sleep, we get on the phone with a close friend and talk about the perils of the world, as well as our shared, joyful memories from childhood," Dr. Jennifer M. Gómez told InStyle. "No matter what our life is looking like, we still squeeze in time for ourselves."

Know your rights

If you work for a larger company, you may have more rights when it comes to mental health than you realize. "If your employer has 50 or more employees or you're under federal contract, you are protected by federal labor and anti-discrimination laws that prevent your employer from penalizing you for taking time off for ... mental health," Choosing Therapy's Laura Handrick told Mental Health First Aid. So do your research! If your company isn't offering mental health days and you know you should be entitled to them, take your request to HR and be prepared to back yourself up with your findings. It may even be that a sick day can be used as a mental health or wellness day.

If you're worried about being penalized for asking for time off when you maybe aren't showing physical signs of being unwell, dispel that stigma right now. It may be that your company is a little behind the times when it comes to mental health care but will be willing to grant your request if you're clear about what you need, it's just that their policies haven't yet been updated. And how good would it feel to be the one who instigated such an important change? "From a company perspective, it is more straightforward to provide support to those whose needs are clear. And, through disclosure, employers can be better able to make adjustments and offer support," HR director at Unum UK, Liz Walker, shared with Women's Health.

Speak openly about your mental health (if you feel comfortable)

While we as a society are getting better about speaking openly about our mental health, it's still not recognized in all workplaces. If your workplace is steadfast in refusing to offer mental health days, by opening up about your struggles with your co-workers, you may find they're going through the same thing as you. Banding together to implement change could be the quickest and most impactful way of showing your employer how important mental health days really are.

You may also find that speaking to your colleagues makes being at work a little more bearable too, as Liz Walker recommended potentially creating a mental health group to provide a safe space for those struggling. "This can be an excellent support system, as taking time out to chat to someone impartial can be a great remedy if you're struggling emotionally, and there doesn't have to be fuss, formality or even appointments," she told Women's Health.

As psychologist Heather Lyons shared with Real Simple, speaking candidly with a member of HR could also prove to be beneficial in a number of ways. They may be able to take the matter higher if you don't feel comfortable speaking to someone in a position of power, or might have the ability to offer some personalized tips on how best to approach asking for a mental health day if you feel confident asking yourself.

Work out why you think you need a day off

Before requesting a mental health day, it's important to work out why you think you need one. If work is your main cause of stress and anxiety, taking a day off work to get back in touch with yourself may do wonders, but it's worth seriously thinking about if that's what you actually need or if something more substantial would be more useful. For example, if you're finding yourself stressed because of financial or family issues away from the workplace, a day off, particularly if you won't get paid for it, may not actually be too helpful. You may even find that being at work is a better distraction from such issues and offers you important social interaction with your co-workers. In this case, you may find it more useful to try something more specifically targeted at your mental health issues, like therapy sessions.

If you do decide to do more to protect your mental health than just a day away from the office, scheduling regular therapy sessions during work time may feel like a more legitimate reason to take time off and may make you feel less guilty about asking for your mental health time. Equally, if going to work really does help you feel more balanced, it could be something you do in your free time instead.

Make it hard for your employer to deny you a mental health day

If you've decided a mental health day really would be beneficial to you, make it as hard as you can for your employer to deny your request. Of course, in an ideal world, all employers would do whatever they could to prioritize their employees' mental health, but if yours is dragging their feet, the harder you make it for them to turn you down with a legitimate reason, the more likely you are to get the time off you need.

One of the best ways you can do this is by setting up a plan for what would happen while you're away. If you work shifts, ask your co-workers before you speak to your boss who would be able to cover your hours, or if you work more regular hours, ask your fellow employees if you could pass off one piece of work to a handful of people for a little while. "You need to be able to explain how you plan to delegate your work, or how you're able to get your work done before and after that mental health day so there's no delay," career consultant Latesha Byrd suggested to Forge. If there's still no legitimate reason for your day off to be denied when you're in desperate need of some time to balance yourself, it may be time to escalate the issue even higher to create real change.