Burnout isn’t just a buzzword: Identified in 2019 as a legit diagnosis and medical condition by the World Health Organization, the “occupational phenomena” ignited a conversation about how much of ourselves we’re giving to others—and at what cost.
With the organization shifting its definition from “a state of vital exhaustion” to a syndrome resulting “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” it also opened up a serious question: Should we take time off to care for our mental health?
The answer is a resounding yes. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, nearly 44 million Americans experience mental health issues in a given year, and chief among those is anxiety. We take PTO and sick days for when we have the flu or a cold or food poisoning, and burnout should fall into the same category.
As Amy Sullivan, PsyD, told the Cleveland Clinic, “Mental health has been stigmatized for so long. Fortunately, people are starting to realize that mental health is just as important as physical health and burnout is a very real part of it.” What’s more, taking a mental health day can not only benefit you but also your employer, in that it can boost productivity and creativity when you return refreshed.
The goal of a mental health day is to give yourself a true 24-hours to let yourself relax, gather your thoughts, avoid your commute and replenish your “low batteries.” So if you, too, are feeling cynical and overwhelmed, turned off by things that used to give you pleasure, and snapping at your spouse for the most minor of infractions, here are five ways to do a mental health day right.
1. Alert your higher-up and/or clients
If you wake up feeling like you just can’t do it again, resist the urge to blow off the whole world and immediately call, email, or text your boss, colleagues or clients—anyone who may need to know your whereabouts. (Not doing so will generate even more anxiety.) Better yet, schedule your mental health day as you would a haircut or a trip to the dentist by planning ahead.
And while some experts suggest being forthright about your need for time off, it is, of course, case-by-case. To err on the side of caution—say, if you’re relatively new to your job, or aren’t particularly close with the person you answer to—keep it simple and straightforward and say that you won’t be in for “for personal reasons.” Just be sure to stand firm in your decision. They—and, more importantly, you—will ultimately be grateful for the self-care you’re putting first.
2. Resist the urge to watch Netflix in your pajamas all day
It may be tempting to schlep from your bed to your sofa and queue up all those Stranger Things episodes you missed, but a mental health day ought to emphasize health. To this end, think about what rejuvenates what you most. Is it a solo bike ride? Journaling? Planting new herbs? Spending time with your niece? Take note of what revives you, and do it: These hours should be all about giving your mind and emotions some real TLC, not blanking out in front of the television.
3. …but do take a nap
If you’re among the many Americans who burn the candles on both ends, it’s likely that your burnout is partly caused by a lack of quality sleep. And while nothing is as nourishing to your brain and body than a full and uninterrupted 7-9 hours of sleep, a nap might feel delicious—and do you some good: According to the Journal of Research and Sleep, napping improves mood, mitigates fatigue, and boosts performance in a range of tasks, including logical reasoning and reaction time. Just be sure to keep your nap to 20 minutes or less, and space it out far enough away from your bedtime.
4. Sweat it out
One of the most telling symptoms of burnout is an increased tendency towards testiness. If your temper is starting to feel like it’s a less than a centimeter away from sending you flying off the handle, it’s not only time for a mental health day but time to address the aggression that’s been brewing.
“Feeling physically tense, restless, and achy is often a sign that you have too much pent-up energy and emotion,” licensed clinical psychologist Alicia Clark, Psyd, told Women’s Health. Your immediate solution? Exercise. Whether it’s a rigorous vinyasa class at your local yoga studio or a long walk in the distant woods, exercise is the real key to rejuvenation: It not only clears your mind, but, thanks to feel-good endorphins, helps your whole body come back on-line in a nearly electrifying way.
5. Eat well
Taking a day off from work shouldn’t translate into drinking massive margaritas and eating thrice-fried, smothered-in-sour-cream chimichangas: Overindulge and you’ll return to work feeling even worse than before.
Rather, use this time away to get mindful about what you’re putting in your body—and to savor a beautifully-cooked, nutritious meal. Away from your daily hustle, and you’ll be able to appreciate the intricacies of a crispy spring salad, or the spices in sambar dal. And if you’re craving a treat, think more along the lines of a few squares of quality dark chocolate: packed with antioxidants, it’ll leave your brain that much more restored.
6. …and pamper yourself
Your mental health day is not about blow-drying your hair for an hour in order to impress your colleagues or clients (unless, of course, this gives you pleasure). Nor is it about dealing with the stress that often accompanies hours of errands. Rather, it’s a time to slow down and chill.
Drink your coffee not in your Hydroflask Tumbler but in a real ceramic mug, outside on your deck or stoop or in a nearby park. Go without makeup for a day and give yourself a DIY facial instead. Luxuriate in a bath of lavender-infused water. Grab that novel your BFF gave you three Christmases ago and curl up on the couch with your pet. Connect with your artistic side by painting or drawing or just doodling on the back of your grocery list. Book a massage, or persuade your partner to give you one.
Listen to music, and fill your kitchen with fresh flowers, and, as I always put it, “flop” where and when you want. Bond with nature in some sort of way. And, most of all, connect with yourself. Take stock of how you’re feeling and the elements of self-care that you can weave into your life to sidestep burnout in the future. Doing so will put you back in the saddle with that much more oomph.