Your Complete Guide to Mental Health Days
When we created National Mental Health Break in 2019 and wrote this guide, we focused on a scenario so many of us can relate to: Feeling burned out at work.
We asked companies and employees to collectively band together and take a break to prioritize their mental health. And on May 15, 2019: We saw 14,000 people around the world and 70+ major companies join us in stepping away from work to do something relaxing or refreshing. We were blown away.
But even just a few years later: A lot has changed.
We’re still grappling with a devastating global pandemic, and in the grips of an economic and unemployment crisis too. So many of us are navigating grief, loss, anxiety, and more. This unprecedented situation touches the fabric of all our lives—and it’s no surprise that it’s leading to a mental health crisis as well.
Since the pandemic began, our survey shows that 52% of people report that their mental health has worsened, and 70% of people cite the top reason as “uncertainty about the future.”
Since the pandemic began, 52% of people report that their mental health has worsened.
Whether you’re on the front lines, navigating the pandemic as a parent, or struggling with uncertainty and taking it all day-by-day—we’re all feeling a level of burnout from the changes and uncertainty we’re enduring.
That’s why National Mental Health Break 2021 is focused on how all of us can carve out time on Friday, May 21, 2021, to prioritize and care for our mental health.
Because even during a global crisis, it’s OK to not be "on" 24/7. In fact, it’s more important than ever to give yourself time to breathe, tend to your needs, and take a moment to regroup.
And to make it even easier: We’re hosting a free virtual event on Wednesday, May 19, that will help you navigate burnout. There’ll be group guided meditations and a workshop to help you understand where burnout derives in your life and how to build a life free from it—with breaks included.
And as for this guide: We’ve updated it to reflect this moment we’re in—one where asking for a mental health day probably can't happen in person and activities like reading at a coffee shop or attending a yoga class aren’t options for most of us.
Here, we’ll walk you through it all. Read through and bookmark this resource for the next time those "Maybe I need a break?" thoughts pop up in your head—or when things feel overwhelming.
Your mental health matters, and tending to it will help you show up and stay resilient through all that we’re facing.
What is a mental health break?
Ultimately, it’s exactly what it sounds like: taking the time away from your work or other priorities to take care of you. For some, it might mean taking 15 minutes to reset in the middle of a work day. For others, it may mean taking an entire day off once a quarter to recharge and better tackle the upcoming weeks.
Whatever it may look like to you, the impact is pretty powerful. “When people take a mental health day when they need it, they can recharge and they can come back to their work feeling refreshed,” Patricia Thompson, Ph.D., a corporate psychologist and management consultant, tells Shine.
How do I know if I need one?
Despite how normal it may feel in our #hustleculture, burnout isn’t healthy. It takes a mental toll and can lead to symptoms that overlap with many mental illnesses. Plus: It’s not sustainable.
It’s crucial to take note of signs of burnout, and the earlier the better. That way, you can take action before you’re in full-blown burnout mode.
“Burnout starts relatively subtly,” Anna Rowley, Ph.D., a psychologist and millennial wellbeing expert, tells Shine. “If you see a fire that’s raging, it’s started somewhere with a small ember, and that’s a bit like burnout.”
Burnout can show up in your life in different ways. “Some people become emotionally and physically depleted—they literally are just exhausted,” Rowley explains. “Some other people feel like, ‘No matter what I do, I’m not getting any personal accomplishment from my job, it’s just a treadmill.’”
According to the Mayo Clinic, other signs of burnout also include:
●︎ Cynicism or critical nature towards your job
●︎ Decreased energy and productivity
●︎ Irritable nature and resentment
●︎ Decreased performance
Take note of the signs of burnout, and start paying attention to your stress and thinking patterns.
I think I need to take one, but I feel nervous asking for it.
Give yourself a pat on the back—because recognizing you need a mental health break is the first step.
It can be scary to ask for time off, especially since paid vacation and sick days are rare, but in the words of Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D., a psychologist and founder of Therapy for Black Girls, “sometimes taking a step back is what’s going to help you really propel forward.”
By prioritizing your wellbeing, you’re able to show up and create a bigger impact for everyone in your life.
But you’re not alone if you feel guilty, anxious, and scared to bring it up—especially at work. The majority of Shine members said they don't feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work.
One of their main reasons why: Fear of seeming "weak" or "lazy." But experts say that mental health breaks are actually good for a company, and it will only make you a stronger employee.
“It’s socially acceptable to take a day or two days off for a sick day, but it’s less societally approved to take a day off when you think psychologically or emotionally you’re feeling under the weather or under a lot of pressure or a lot of anxiety,” Rowley says. “Yet there’s no difference.”
It can be easy to talk yourself out of it, but if a "Do I actually need this?" moment pops in your head, take a moment to list some stress points that you’ve been facing lately.
Sometimes, putting things on paper and reflecting on what time away will allow you to bring to those obstacles—more energy, a fresh perspective, renewed hope—can motivate you to actually create space away from them. Also: It can empower you to advocate for your needs.
For people of color or folks in marginalized groups, there can be extra pressure at play and it can be uncomfortable to advocate for yourself with that in mind.
“For black women, a lot of times they are already feeling silenced in the workplace,” Bradford says. “Sometimes black women are even hesitant to take sick days when they’re physically ill—so a mental health day is definitely not something they’re going to take.”
But while various barriers might prevent you from seeking a mental health break, remind yourself that you are worthy of the space and time to refuel.
“Give yourself permission to fully enjoy it without guilt, and recognize that you are deserving of self-care and that’s a good thing,” Thompson says.
It's also helpful—and empowering—to know your rights as an employee.
It's illegal in the U.S. to discriminate or harass someone because of a mental health condition. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that "if a reasonable accommodation would help you to do your job, your employer must give you one unless the accommodation involves significant difficulty or expense."
You have rights when it comes to taking time off, too. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles employees to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for serious health conditions—but it does have a few stipulations based on the size of your company and how long you've been employed.
You can learn more about your rights under FMLA here and get support from the EEOC if you think your rights have been violated here. If your company has their own mental health policy (some do!), be sure to review that, too.
Ok, I’m ready to ask: What do I say?
Pre-pandemic: Experts would suggest asking a boss or manager in person so you can better gauge their response and refine your ask for the next time you may need to take a mental health break.
But if that's not an option now: Asking over email or Slack works too. Rowley says don’t feel like you have to go into a lot of detail. “Make it easy for the person you’re talking to to say yes,” she says. “It might be uncomfortable for both of you to talk about this.”
Use these templates as a framework to talk to your employer IRL, via Slack, or over email:
Hey (insert name here)! I realized it’s been a while since I’ve taken time off for myself, so I was hoping to take time off on (date) and come back refreshed and ready to go.
Hey (insert name here)—I haven’t been feeling 100% and was hoping to take some time off on (date). I would love time to recharge so I can come back to work more productive and focused!
Hello (insert name here), I’d love the opportunity to take some time off this week on (date). I haven’t been feeling 100% lately, and could definitely use this time to refuel and come back to work feeling ready to take things on.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Best, (Your name)
If it feels difficult to ask, remember to be kind to yourself. It’s human for it to feel uncomfortable, and know it’ll get easier with practice.
“When you first advocate for yourself, it’s really hard and painful to feel vulnerable and exposed,” Rowley says. “But once you’ve done it, you'll feel a sense of release and relief, and it'll be so much easier to do the next time.”
'When you first advocate for yourself, it’s really hard and painful to feel vulnerable and exposed. But once you’ve done it, you'll feel a sense of release and relief, and it'll be so much easier to do the next time.'- Anna Rowley, Ph.D.
I got the time for myself—but now what do I do?
If that question is top of mind for you, you’re not alone. When surveyed, 53% of Shine members said knowing how to take an effective mental health day would empower them to do it more.
Unlike sick days (which have the whole chicken-soup-in-bed thing going for them), there’s no social script for mental health days—we don’t typically see them played out in movies or TV shows.
Plus: Since we don’t talk about them openly, we don’t really swap tips about what’s effective or how to do it. “Hundreds of millions of people take mental health breaks, but we just don’t talk about it,” Rowley says.
With mental health breaks, Rowley says it's key to think ahead and “prescribe” what will be restorative for you. “Plan for it, a bit like a holiday,” she says. “Just as you would go to the doctor to get a prescription, you can take a day where you’re prescribing: I need a warm bath, a good sleep, do yoga, read a good book, curl up and watch a good movie, and I’ll come back to work feeling whole.”
There’s no right way to take a mental health break, but Rowley says an effective break will engage a few different senses and involve activities that bring you joy. “A mental health day should be an opportunity to really treat the whole person and have a more holistic view of feeding and nourishing ourselves in different ways,” she says.
Even if you aren’t able to take a full day off and only have a few minutes each day, there are simple to take care of yourself. Savor that cup of coffee, go for a quick walk outside, or take an extra five minutes in the morning or evening to listen to a meditation in the Shine app (there's even a free meditation to help you kickstart a mental health break!).
Here are some other ideas from the Shine community:
How do I know when it’s more than a mental health day?
“You can tell you’ve had a good mental health break when you experience a feeling of relief,” Thompson says. But if that sense of relief is just out of reach, you might need more than a mental health break or day off. “You might need to seek professional help if you’re chronically experiencing symptoms,” she says.
Reviewing symptoms from organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Health can help you pinpoint any feelings or patterns you notice yourself having. But ultimately, reaching out to a medical professional for insight can help you start crafting ways to deal with any mental health concerns you may have.
For some, that looks like therapy—and for others that might also include medication. There are nearly 50 million people in the United States who deal with mental illness. Just remember: Everyone may have their own journey, but you’re not alone.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). If you or someone you care about needs help, text 741741 to talk with a crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line—it's free, confidential, and available at all hours.
How do I help people around me prioritize their mental health, too?
The first step: Talk about it.
So often, it can feel like we’re the only ones in the world experiencing feelings of loneliness, anxiety, burnout, and more. There’s unfortunately a spiral of silence around mental health, even though 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. will experience a mental illness in a given year. You’re not alone.
It can feel scary to kickstart a conversation about mental health—and like a move that might seem weak. But it actually does the opposite. “When you see someone who seems like they’re perfect, it’s hard to relate to them,” Thompson says. “But when you can show you’re a well-rounded human with weaknesses and vulnerabilities, that opens the door for others to talk about that.”
According to our recent survey about COVID-19's impact on mental health, 52% of people said they're talking about their mental health more now—with the main reason being that they know others are struggling, too.
As one Shine member said: “I am feeling more emotionally connected to others because I know that I need help and others do as well. This reality is nothing like anything that I have ever experienced before in my life.”
If you take time to care for your mental health, the best thing you can do is share that with others. Maybe that means telling your friends when you take a mental health break. Just as you would talk about a sick day (“I took the day off because I had such a bad cold"), you can share why you took a day for yourself (“I took the day off because my stress hit a high”).
Or, maybe it means texting a friend to remind them to prioritize themselves today, maybe it’s sending this article to your group chat or favorite Facebook group.
By walking the walk, you’re also making it easier for people around you to realize that taking time can benefit us all.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, know that seeking help is a strength—not a weakness. If you or someone you care about needs help, text 741741 to talk with a crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line—it's free, confidential, and available at all hours.
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