By Andrea Romano
November 06, 2019
Hoxton/Tom Merton/Getty Images

We all could use a good, restorative mental health day every so often, but navigating how or when to take much-needed time off can be a challenge.

Taking a mental health day, long vacation, or sabbatical sounds like a wonderful idea in theory, but many office workers tend to forgo quality self-care time. Some blame it on a jam-packed schedule, while others say it's frowned upon in their office.

“Employees may be less likely to take advantage of mental health days due to the perceived stigma associated with mental health,” said Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) member Dr. Kevin Chapman, who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety and other disorders, in an email to Travel + Leisure. “Employees may fear being inappropriately labeled by an employer or their colleagues as weak, ‘crazy,’ or inferior.”

While the amount of employers offering mental health care and mental health days is increasing, the social stigma and long-held belief that mental health is less important than physical health endures. “The irony is that there is overwhelming empirical data to suggest that mental and physical health are intricately related and usually bidirectional,” said Dr. Chapman.

Dr. Chapman noted that the effects of stress can lead to high levels of cortisol, a stress fighting hormone, which can manifest as headaches, sleep disturbances, and even panic attacks. In attempting to relieve stress, Dr. Chapman said, workers often resort to procrastination for temporary relief. This tactic, however, is prone to backfiring.

“Mental health breaks by definition imply that in order for workers to be more productive, mind-body health needs to be maintained. In order to assure productivity, the human body needs to be refueled both physically and mentally,” Dr. Chapman said. “The most systematic way to ensure that this refueling occurs would be through providing regular mental health breaks since stress is inevitable across work settings.”

How long or how often a person takes time off for their mental health depends on their industry and individual needs. Because of this, Dr. Chapman explains there's no prescriptive amount of time one should take to rest their mind.

On the other hand, sabbaticals or other long breaks from the office can build up more work-related anxiety for an individual, while too-short breaks may not be sufficiently restorative. For those looking to take time off, an employee must find a middle ground between completely ignoring his or her mental health needs and writing off showing up to the office entirely.

“If the mental health break is due to significant pressure at work and what I deem as an ‘unrealistic schedule’ (not enough time to complete work tasks throughout the work week), then longer days may make sense for certain individuals,” Dr. Chapman said. “If the function of the break is avoidance of anxiety-provoking tasks, then longer breaks may not be ideal. Regardless, predictable breaks (vacations or ‘mental health days’) are ideal across work settings.”

What can truly make a difference for workers is a supportive office culture that focuses on preventing burnout, rather than prescribing workers mental health days. “This may include mental health breaks throughout the work week or incentives for mental health-related activities (such as gym memberships, hot yoga, yoga, fitness courses, etc.) aside from providing financial support for seeking mental health services when warranted,” Dr. Chapman said.

Chapman is a strong proponent for office-sanctioned time during the work day to practice awareness and mindfulness.

“Mindfulness meditation allows employees to 'reboot,' which would contribute to higher energy levels and work productivity. Additionally, teaching employees how to be mindful would facilitate emotional regulation, leading to more effective management of stressful situations,” Dr. Chapman said.

2014 study sponsored by Chung Shan Medical University found that individuals who practiced mindfulness as part of the study had lower levels of physiological stress.

In offices where these practices aren't yet in place, there are still ways to maximize mental health breaks. Workers can make it a point to take a break during the day, such as taking a walk in nature or switching to doing household tasks if they work from home. A well-planned vacation can also help restore the mind and body.

Dr. Chapman's bottom line? “In short, it would be quite responsible for employers to create a culture where mental health breaks are inevitable due to the relationship between mental health and work productivity,” he said. 

Next time you need a mental health break, even if it’s just for a day, it may be good to remind your boss that the time off can actually lead to better work once you’ve returned. 

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