Why you should take a guilt-free mental health day

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Have you ever been reluctant to take a day off work due to feeling burnt out? If the answer is yes, you are not doing yourself or your workplace any favours by turning up.

Being present on the job but suffering from exhaustion or work-related stress means you are more than likely to perform at a reduced capacity – not good for you, or your job.

According to a federal government report Creating a mentally healthy workplace: Return on investment, presenteeism (working while unwell) is a far bigger problem for the Australian workplace than the loss of productivity due to employees calling in sick.

Mental health conditions alone cost the Australian workplace $6.1 billion in presenteeism, compared with $4.7 billion in absenteeism.

Dr Monique Crane, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University says: "Perhaps the reason people may continue to work while feeling significantly exhausted or stressed out is a desire to 'push thorough', feeling that it is illegitimate to take a day off for your wellbeing, not wanting to let others down, and potentially harbouring a sense of shame (believing that if you need some time off, then perhaps you are somehow weak)."

This can be directly attributed to the stigma related to mental health. A Beyond Blue survey, State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia, found that among the one in five employees who report that they have taken time off work due to feeling mentally unwell in the past 12 months, almost half did not disclose the reason to anybody in their workplace.

Businesses recognising wellbeing in the workplace

It seems Australians just aren't comfortable in owning up to taking leave for mental health issues as they would for physical ailments such as flu or toothache. Dr Crane believes, however, that regardless of whether or not you state your reasons for leave, soldiering on is not be ideal.

"If your work is really starting to impact your wellbeing emotionally and you are going to work tired and unhappy, it may be helpful to take a short break."

And your boss may be glad you did. Dr Crane says poor mental health in the workplace is a growing concern for both employees and their employers.


"Managers are expressing a growing concern for the mental health of their employees," says Dr Crane.

"The topic is showing up much more frequently in popular management forums, but also as an increase desire for wellbeing support in the form of resilience training and other initiatives that are popping up at different points in the employee lifecycle.

Recovery time should be guilt-free

"In one organisation I worked with, their weekly meetings now include a conversation about employees looking after themselves and their colleagues.

"This hot topic is also recognised by major business news outlets, such as Forbes, and leading management consulting institutes, like Gallup," says Dr Crane. "A report by Safe Work Australia indicated that work-related mental stress costs the Australian economy: 'while mental stress cases comprise two per cent of the total number of cases, they contribute five per cent of the total economic cost'."

Taking a mental health day when you are suffering from stress or anxiety, therefore, is not only the best thing you can do for yourself but also for your employer. In workplaces that employees consider mentally healthy, self-reported absenteeism as a result of experiencing mental ill-health almost halves and job satisfaction and productivity significantly improve.

"If people are feeling exhausted after a hectic work period then it is not unreasonable to expect them to take a short break to reduce the physical, mental and emotional strain caused by job stressors," says Dr Crane.

And, as long as you use it correctly, Dr Crane says taking a mental health day is an effective way to reset, recover and return to work refreshed and at full capacity.

"Such breaks need to be used in a meaningful way that promotes recovery processes. This means that an individual's resources that are normally called upon during work can be given time to be revived during non-work time," she says.

As you try to unwind and recuperate on your mental health day off, Dr Crane says a particularly important aspect of your recovery process should be that leave is taken guilt-free and be "a complete psychological detachment from work".

"A break in and of itself is not enough, the employee must be absorbed in something they personally find gratifying to facilitate effective recovery," says Dr Crane.

"Do something you find engaging. It depends on what you enjoy, but activities people have told me they do are bushwalking, cycling, listening to music, painting, playing with their kids, and other hobbies. The essential thing is you are not ruminating about work.

"It is important to pay attention to the impact certain activities have on your wellbeing by asking yourselves whether doing them makes me feel good. I would probably not recommend doing your tax, unless you really enjoy tax."

Five ways to know you need a day off

But how do you know when to give your brain a break? Dr Crane lists some signs you might be in need of a mental health day:

  • Feelings of exhaustion, particularly before work
  • Failing to get adequate sleep
  • Expressions of cynicism about the workplace
  • A reluctance to go to work
  • Feeling a low sense of capability at work

If this sounds like you, then it may be time to take a mental health day. However, if one day leads to many, with no improvement in performance upon return to work, Dr Crane recommends you see a doctor.

"If problems persist, then an employee should consider a visit to their GP or a mental health professional (such as an EAP provider) and talk to them about how they have been feeling," says Dr Crane.

"Early intervention is the best intervention and often our GP or psychologist can help give us some useful strategies for managing the demands of work."

Dr Monique Crane is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University and author of Managing for Resilience a Practical Guide to Individual Wellbeing and Organisational Performance.

This article was first published on the Macquarie University Lighthouse.