How to Tell Your Boss You Need a Mental Health Day
And why you shouldn't feel bad about asking for one.
In 2020, taking a mental health day shouldn't be taboo, but if it's not actively encouraged in your workplace, it can feel anxiety-inducing to ask your boss for one. So let's clear one thing up real quick: There should be no shame in prioritizing your mental health and well-being any time — but especially right now as the country grapples with government-sanctioned violence and racism on top of a deadly virus.
For Black people in particular, taking this time off should be seen as a form of self-preservation, not self-indulgence, says trauma psychologist, Jennifer M. Gómez, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology and the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development (MPSI) at Wayne State University.
"A few years ago, the phrase 'calling in Black' entered society's consciousness. According to vlogger and influencer Evelyn from the Internets, 'calling in Black' means 'I just need a solid day to reaffirm my humanity to myself' amidst all the public anti-Black violence'," explains Dr. Gómez. "Today, we again find ourselves living in a similar time of high-profile agony, from the million cuts of a work colleague remarking, in disbelief, that, as a Black person, you speak so well, to Black people getting beaten and killed in the streets and their homes with impunity."
"Though these realities are even older than the United States of America itself, the weight of the injustices, including deaths, can reach a level so toxic that taking care of our souls, spirits, psyches, minds, and bodies must take priority," she continues. "Mental health days are one such strategy in our process of healing."
On a practical level, these mental health days are also necessary for productivity, adds psychiatrist Kali D. Cyrus, M.D., M.P.H., a founding member of Time'sUP Healthcare. "You can't get work done in an environment of chaos — which is what is happening — and if you're feeling mentally unhealthy, which every Black person is feeling right now regardless of how they may seem," Dr. Cyrus says.
"In the ideal world, bosses would proactively make it clear that anyone could have a mental health day (as to not single out Black people), close the office for a day, or even just say that they understand people will not be working at their best," Dr. Cyrus says.
Even if your manager hasn't stepped up to make this message clear, don't shy away from asking for what you need. As for what to say, Dr. Cyrus recommends keeping it short: "'I'm not feeling well today and would like to call in sick' — because feeling emotionally sick counts. Or, 'I'm unable to come in due to personal reasons.'"
"I think right now, it's so clear that the world is on fire — so calling in with any reason will likely be construed as due to what's going on. So I'd be less shy about requesting time off this week more than ever," she adds.
Still, it's important to address that not everyone has the ability to take a mental health day. "People who work hourly jobs may be fired if they take a day off, or simply cannot afford the loss in pay, especially during the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic. Even salaried workers may have already used up their sick days," Dr. Gomez says.
So what can you do if taking a mental health day simply is not possible? Try to find a mental health hour or two. "We can fit a mental health day into a smaller piece that works for us. When we finish work, we can take an hour to ourselves to journal," Dr. Gómez says. "Or maybe on a day off or when we can't sleep, we get on the phone with a close friend and talk about the perils of the world, as well as our shared, joyful memories from childhood. No matter what our life is looking like, we still squeeze in time for ourselves."
If you are in a position where you are able to take this time off, here are a few of the best tips to help you put in a work request for a mental health day — and feel more comfortable doing it.
1. Plan what you're going to say before you say it.
It seems like an obvious tip, but in the moment, if you're nervous about what you're asking, any preparation you've done will come in clutch.
"It's important to prepare what you're going to say before you reach out to human resources or your supervisor," mental health activist Dior Vargas suggests. "It's important to be in the mindset that you are deserving of a mental health day if you're overwhelmed. It also helps to word your request as something that would benefit the company. An example might be, 'I wanted to discuss taking a mental health day. Since working on our current project, I've been feeling that my productivity isn't at the level that I would like it to be at. Taking a day off would help me refresh and better achieve the goals I have for this position.'"
2. Be straightforward and clear.
To put it simply: Clarity is king. "I think the first step is being clear with yourself about why a mental health day is needed. Is it exhaustion, family issues, [medication] changes, anxiety, etc.? Once you are clear with why you need the day, it is easier to communicate that to the powers that be," Julieann Ipsan, LCSW-C, therapist at the Frederick Psychology Center, told Bustle. That said, you shouldn't be made to feel that you have to disclose details you'd rather keep personal.
3. If you don't feel comfortable citing mental health as the reason you need a day off, then don't.
If the idea of talking about mental health with your boss is causing you more stress, then save yourself some hassle by not getting specific. "It is vital to assess if your company and work culture is open to the idea of mental health days," Ipsan explained. "If asking and explaining details will ultimately create more stress, it's better to take a sick day with no explanation of the mental health needs."
4. Ask as soon as you can, and go in solving problems in advance.
While your concerns with asking might be more emotion-driven, your boss is more likely to think practically. Call in reinforcements with help from your co-workers if you need them to pick up the slack while you're out, and let your boss know soon so they can restructure if necessary.
5. Remember that you don't owe anyone an explanation beyond the bare-bones details — not even your boss.
It might seem easy to slip into a detailed description of your mental health status or feel pressured to explain your request with specifics, but you really don't have to if you don't want to. Ban.do's founder Jen Gotch advised Well & Good to lead with a scientific approach if you're concerned about keeping any particulars of your request private.
“The brain is the most complicated organ in the body, so it makes sense that all sorts of things could glitch out on all levels,” Gotch said. “That’s been a way for me to explain it to people where they don’t have to understand how it feels.” Speaking of bare-bones: The bare minimum you should be able to expect from your boss is that they can empathize with you even if they aren't sharing a specific experience of yours. After you take any of these routes and ask for your mental health day, their answer should be something along the lines of, "Sounds good, feel better." It doesn't have to be a drawn-out conversation on either end.