Need a Mental Health Day? How to Have This Conversation With Your Boss

Taking a mental health day off work is something you’re completely entitled to do but it can sometimes feel hard or awkward to have this conversation with your boss.

Often, if you do just need a day away from work, you will most likely resort to telling your employer you’re experiencing physical symptoms rather than mental.

In fact, according to research undertaken by SEEK, 53% of Australians who have taken time off for mental health reasons didn’t disclose this and used another reason to take the time off.

The data also found that 80% of Australians agree employees should be allowed to take days off for their mental health but only one in three say they’ve taken time off for mental health reasons and disclosed this to their boss.

Whether or not you feel comfortable disclosing information about your mental health in your workplace largely depends on your colleagues and employers. SEEK found that 40% of Aussie workers feel uncomfortable speaking to their manager about their mental health but on the flip side, found 44% of people felt comfortable speaking to their colleagues about their mental health.

With events of the past year causing a huge amount of stress and anxiety, it’s important to take a break and use your sick days as mental health days in order to rest, reset and take a breather from everything going on.

“When you feel like you need a break or are feeling a little off-balance, it impacts all areas of our life, including our work life,” Lysn psychologist Bethany Howsley told The Latch. “Stress is not just something we experience mentally, it affects our physiology, how we feel physically in our bodies.

“Listening and tuning into your own boundaries and knowing our own limits allows us to better practice self-care. It helps you to notice when your tank is starting to run low and thus you can act in a more responsive and preventative way.

“This kind of awareness and boundary setting not only benefits you but can also have a positive flow-on effect to your workplace and team. We are slowly coming into a new way of working, being, and relating, and shifting out from the old mindset of ‘pushing until there’s nothing left to give’.”

Discussing mental health in the workplace can often feel taboo, but if you are able to have a frank conversation with your boss about needing time off due to your mental health, this is incredibly helpful in reducing this stigma.

“It’s incredibly important to help reduce the stigma associated with talking about mental health,” Howsley said. “Unfortunately talking about mental health used to be a taboo topic, often not even spoken about amongst family members or loved ones.

“However, in recent years, leaders and mental health professionals have worked incredibly hard to increase awareness and reduce stigma. Continuing to openly talk about mental health is going to continue to help raise awareness and allow people to see mental health as just as important as physical health.”

Lysn psychologist Bethany Howsley gives her advice for the best way to approach this conversation with your boss.

How to ask your employer for a mental health day

“Sometimes taking a day off might sound counter-intuitive, especially if you’re stressed, or feeling overwhelmed by your workload, however it is beneficial to your job,” said Howsley. “The struggles you might be feeling could be making you distracted, flustered or feeling disorganized, therefore likely having a negative impact on your work.

“Talking about mental health in general can be a difficult topic to broach, especially with a boss. The best way to approach the topic is going to depend on the kind of boss you have and the kind of relationship you have with them. In an ideal world, you should be able to openly discuss the matter and your boss should respond in a supportive way.

“Start by choosing a time or booking in a time with your boss to discuss the matter when you both aren’t distracted by work or pending issues. Explain your intention in a way that is solution-focused. For example, ‘I feel that taking a day off to focus on my mental health is going to allow me to better approach the proposal/report etc.’ Be sure to mention that taking some time off will allow you to re-group, relax and recalibrate in order to give 100% to your work.

“Expressing a need for time off due to mental health reasons will support open and honest communication, will build trust and transparency, and will reduce any ill assumptions which could be made from not being clear about your reasons for not attending work. It will also help to set a precedent that it is OK to ask for a day off to ensure healthy workplace practice.”

Give as much or as little detail as you want

“You don’t need to go into detail, simply saying that you’d like to take a mental health day should be sufficient,” Howsley said. “Thankfully, some workplaces are quite progressive and have a ‘no questions asked’ policy. Some workplaces have structured their benefits such that mental health days and sickies all come under ‘personal leave’ so employees should check on their company policy before making a decision on the level of detail they provide.

“Feeling unbalanced and unsettled emotionally are valid reasons to take some time off work and your boss should respect this. Just be sure to use the time wisely when you are taking a day off. Figure out what you need to feel balanced again, such as a well-deserved sleep in, a meditation or a yoga class, or some exercise, and make sure to do that.”

Don’t feel guilty for needing some time off

“Remind yourself that a mental health day is about looking after your health in general,” said Howsley. “Just like you would take a day off because you’re physically sick, you need to take a day off for emotional reasons too. When we sprain or roll our ankle, we wouldn’t continue jogging, we would take a break. The same goes with our mental health, we can’t pour from an empty cup. It’s important to treat ourselves with the kindness in the same way we would treat our friends, and give ourselves permission to pause, replenish and recharge.

“Also remind yourself that taking that time off is going to help your work, not hinder it. You’re likely to come back to work feeling re-energised, refreshed and ready to give it your all. Prolonging or continuing to work through any emotional stress is going to have a negative effect on your work.”

Bethany Howsley is a clinical psychologist from Lysn. Lysn is a digital mental health company with world-class wellbeing technology which helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist whilst being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.

If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here.

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