The alarm goes after a very restless night and you awake as tired as you were when you went to bed. You struggle out of bed, feeling rotten, and head off to work. You don’t have a cold, the flu or other physical ailment so you can’t call in sick. But isn’t your mental health just as important and severe as your physical health?

Absolutely! And from my experience managing teams, I know poor mental health can be worse in the workplace than poor physical health, maybe because it is less obvious than physical health.

Someone feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed can dramatically change the team culture, office ambience, and indeed ‘infect’ others – as much as someone with a cold or gastro can.

So, how do you ask for a day off for your mental health, and how as should a manager or employer think about mental health days? How do we normalise mental health conditions to be thought of in the same way physical health conditions are?

How to ask for a mental health day

The first thing is to acknowledge is that you need a mental health day. Being clear on why you need it does two things: it makes it easier to communicate why you need a mental health day to your boss; and it can help get rid of the guilt you might feel for ‘chucking a sickie’ when you’re feel unwell but not actually coughing and spluttering.

And just as you would see a doctor for a physical illness you should also have a plan to address your mental illness – maybe go to a doctor or specialist.
Assess your workplace culture and its openness to the idea of mental illness.

If asking for a mental health day will cause you more stress, then take a sick day off without explanation. A couple of days off without explanation is acceptable. People often think they are required to ‘over-explain’ themselves which is not the case at all.

Employers and mental health days

Employers might worry that if staff start taking mental health days, the sick leave days will spike and staff will just call in sick whenever they don’t feel like coming in to work (or have something else on, like a day fishing). I worked at a multinational company in New Zealand 20-odd years ago and the company got rid of the 10 days’ sick leave per annum for each employee.

What they discovered was this took away the concept that sick leave was like annual leave, and people only took sick leave when they were sick. Their overall number of sick leave days taken plummeted, and staff had the days off when they needed them.

Employers should also look at mental health days as part of a culture that is supportive of their staff, of work–life balance and mental health care. Staff who aren’t stressed, anxious or overwhelmed and take a day or two off to decompress are generally more productive, have better concentration, are friendlier and help lift the mood of the office. They become better friends and colleagues, and more loyal and dedicated employees.

Even those of us who are the employers or self-employed should consider having a mental health day. For me, this usually entails taking a day out of the office midweek to go fly fishing – which I call Zen fishing. During the drive there and back I listen to music, and the places I go to are usually scenic so there are lots of interesting things to look at.

I put my phone on airplane mode and can spend several hours walking a river trying to outwit fish. I rarely think about anything else than staying upright in the river and how to catch that fish – no work issues, nothing to do with the family, no politics – just nothing else. The next day, I’m clearer in thought, have more energy, I’m happier and I’d like to think more pleasant to be around.

Peter Bregman the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done has a concept in his book of putting your daily tasks under five categories, one of them being ‘for me’. The premise is that it makes you think about what you do during the day and why it is important, and how to be more productive.

Mental health days with an activity such as Zen fishing, going to the gym, going to the movies, or taking time out to read a book are all important, legitimate tasks if one of the categories for your tasks is ‘for me’.

The next time you need a mental health day, or one of your staff does, remember this quote from American Rabbi Harold Kushner: “Being kind to others is a way of being good to yourself.” Treating yourself or your staff in a kind, empathic and compassionate way will help you, them, and the business too.