You may wake up one wintry, dreary weekday morning and say, "It's only Tuesday but it feels like Friday. I can't stand it. There is no way I can go in. That presentation will have to be rescheduled. I'm taking a mental health day and am calling in sick."
Ideally those mornings are very rare, if they happen at all. Rather than relax you, those moments of decision can cause huge stress and make going in to work easier than thinking about staying home.
The biggest challenge most of us have with mental health days is choosing when to take them and then wrestling with the resulting guilt. If arranged in advance to avoid disruption to your team and clients, a mental health day -- taken once every quarter -- is not going to stall your career. It could actually energize it.
They spring up suddenly because you need a break and are usually not part of a vacation allowance and may instead count as a sick day.
Mental health days are critical to most professionals' long-term performance and well-being. Over three decades in the workforce has shown me that those who never take a mental health day, let alone holiday time or frequently work weekends, are hurting themselves and their companies: burnout is never far away.
A mental health day to them is an admission of feeling overwhelmed, an inability to cope, and even an act of corporate disloyalty. A manager who takes a mental health day may feel that he or she is setting a bad example and employees may follow suit. "If the boss can do it, why can't I?"
A mental health day is usually the result of our decision to stay home (often on short notice) owing to our need to get away from the workplace. "Mental health day" used to be a euphemism for just not going in to work and doing something fun instead. They are now not so much about having fun but are the result of feeling mentally exhausted from working a six or seven-day week.
They spring up suddenly because you need a break and are usually not part of a vacation allowance and may instead count as a sick day. Perhaps a co-worker may be so irritating that you temporarily lose patience and can't face them. Or, the weather may be perfect, the ski hills are beckoning and you have not had a day off in months.
There's a growing conversation about work/life balance -- and for good reason. It comes in the wake of studies that measure the damaging effects of stress on our performance caused by travelling to and from the office as well as in the workplace.
Fit and mentally sound people have a hard enough time dealing with stress, but those suffering from mental illness (such as depression or bipolar disorder) can put themselves at great risk if they leave their illness unchecked and soldier on by coming in to work day after day.
Progressive companies get it.
As long as employees get their work done, progressive companies encourage them to work remotely from home, or come and go from the office at different hours to avoid traffic and to better manage their responsibilities at home, such as caring for kids or older family members.
Set realistic boundaries to the benefit of yourself and others.
However, if you work in an office where colleagues are encouraged to take mental health days on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis, it still doesn't mean that taking them will be good for you. You could feel guilty if your day lands during a busy time and puts extra pressure on colleagues and clients and you may wish you had gone in instead. Or, if you have nothing planned, you may find yourself thinking about all you could catch up on and end up working from home.
Have a mental health day plan
Here are six things to consider when you are thinking about taking a mental health day.
1. Talk to your employer about why you want to take occasional mental health days. Discuss separating them from vacation and sick days as a "once a quarter" event.
2. Ensure that you plan them in advance whenever possible to avoid disrupting work flows for your colleagues and clients.
3. Once you have committed to your day off, take it unless it is absolutely necessary that you come into work. Set realistic boundaries to the benefit of yourself and others. You've heard of people who defer vacation days to the point that they accrue weeks of even months of holiday time. (This may cause problems when they change jobs and must negotiate settlement for vacation time owing to them.)
4. If you are planning a mental health day, plan things you enjoy -- such as time with family or pursuing a hobby. Avoid tackling a stressful home task or similar activity that offers little or no enjoyment. Your goal is to relax.
5. If you need increasingly more mental health days, talk to a professional or human resource manager. You may need more than a few days off if you are reaching the point where going to work has become a struggle. Signs include lack of concentration at work, conflict with co-workers and a sense of feeling overwhelmed. A mental health day will only provide short-term relief and you probably won't enjoy it anyway thinking about returning to your work environment.
6. To avoid burnout and the need to take more mental health days, try to integrate non-work activities into your daily routine, such as going to the gym or taking a recreational or business-related course one night a week to change up your routine. Consider keeping work relationships in the office and politely minimize socializing with colleagues and clients.
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