“Just take a mental health day!” It’s the pat advice when an employee is overloaded with personal and/or work stress. But actually broaching that discussion with a boss who may not be receptive can be difficult -- and for some, taking a day “off” to focus on mental health just isn’t possible.
“A mental health day is a great idea, but not everyone can do it, and you can’t duck out of work every time you get stressed,” says Marianne Clyde, founder of the Marianne Clyde Center for Holistic Psychotherapy in Virginia, who focuses on mental health in the workplace. “But there are realistic ways you can talk to your boss, and steps you can take to deal with stress every day at your desk.” Here, Clyde shares her practical advice.
How to ask for one or two days off
“Mental health is as important as physical health, and the two are tied. No one really blinks if you’re taking the day off for a physical problem like a broken leg or a cold. But if you say, ‘Gosh, I’m so stressed, and I just need the day to recover,’ some people will look at you sideways," says Clyde.
"If you take a sick day or two to focus on your mental health, you don’t need to explain yourself. ‘I’m not feeling well and I’ll have to take the day off, but I’ll be back tomorrow.’ If someone presses you, simply explain you’d rather not talk about the details but you’re OK. That’s a legitimate response, but we tend to think we need over-explain.
Stress, especially chronic stress, starts to change our brains and we have to try to catch ourselves before it hurts us too much. Some signs include: You’re quick to anger. Everything and everyone is frustrating. Your memory isn’t as sharp as usual. You can’t make decisions in a timely way. That glass of wine after work has become a full bottle.
All of this means your brain is overworked and needs a break. Our mental health is more important than any deadline or meeting at work, even though it doesn’t always feel that way. If you can catch it before it gets too bad, it’s easier to come out of it.”
What to do if you need more time away
“If do you find you need more than a day or two off, in my opinion, you need to have a conversation with your superior. If it’s a particular personal stressor, like going through a divorce, I’d give the basic details and explain, ‘I need a couple days to straighten stuff out.’ Most bosses are going to understand that.
But if it’s a chronic mental health struggle, or you can’t boil it down to a particular trigger that is troubling you, that’s tougher. I’d love a world where we’re able to talk about mental health openly in the workplace, but I think you have to be circumspect when you’re approaching an employer.
I think for the most part people can detect the amount of empathy in the workplace if they pay attention. If your boss is someone who keeps emotions in check, is compassionate, and has good personal boundaries, they would likely be receptive to a conversation about mental health. But if it’s a workplace where everyone is frantic with stress, or closed-off, that’s probably not a good environment to share.
So if you can’t share but you need more time off, I’d focus on the needs of the business. ‘I’m a team player, and I want to give 100%. But I’ve got some stuff going on in my life that is interfering. Can I take the rest of this week so I can come back next week refreshed?’ If your boss can see the value in you being better, that can help. But if your boss is not open to any such discussion, or the work environment is so toxic, then it could be time for a new job.”
Can’t take off? 4 tips for coping at work
If you can’t or don’t want to take a day off – or if you find yourself unexpectedly stressed out midday – you can still take quick, easy actions during the workday.
1. Take a few moments away to regroup. “If you’re in a meeting and the stress begins to rise, it’s OK to excuse yourself and say you’ll be back in five minutes. Go to the bathroom or walk around, and take some deep breaths. Shake off the negativity and fear, and re-center before stepping back into the room.”
2. Even better: Get outside if you can. “If you can take a walk outside — whether it’s stepping out of that stressful meeting or if you’re just generally feeling the pressure build up while you’re at your desk -- that’s ideal. You’re changing your environment, you’re getting some sunshine, and being outdoors can help you look at the big picture of life.”
3. Chug water. “Stress is an actual, physical event and it can make you dehydrated. Drinking water throughout the day can help avoid that stress flaring up. And in the moment, taking a sip of water lets us focus on something else. It’s also a great tactic if you need a moment in a meeting to collect your thoughts after being put on the spot.”
4. Set healthy boundaries with toxic coworkers. “With work stresses, we can all tend to be like Pigpen from Charlie Brown: picking up and hanging onto everything bad. We want to minimize that. So someone who’s always complaining, constantly gossiping, and generally getting you down isn’t a person you want to be talking to all day. Yes, you may have to interact with colleagues for work, but you don’t need to go out for lunch or a drink. If they stop by your cubicle, politely but firmly say you’re slammed with work and turn back to your computer.”
In general when it comes to dealing with stress, Clyde “always goes back to this mantra: ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’ That reminder, to create a space between you and the stress, is so powerful.
It’s up to you how you want to create the ability to take that space. For some people, it’s meditating every day. For others, it’s spending time outside of work doing something like they love, like hiking or crocheting. But you’ve got to find a way to let all of these stressors and resentments and worries go, at least a bit
I don't subscribe to the theory that everyone needs a therapist. But if you’re feeling stuck – and we all get stuck at some point in our lives – a therapist can help with coping mechanisms and practical solutions. We get stuck in our perspectives and in the way we do things, but if we want to see a change, we need to make a change.”