Most of us would feel fairly comfortable about taking a day off work when we’re physically unwell. Crawling into work with a streaming nose, raging cold or dodgy stomach? Nuh-uh, no way. But research shows that we’re far less confident when it comes to taking time off to look after our mental health – otherwise known as taking a mental health sick day. Here’s your guide to understanding the ways in which mental health issues can impact your work life, and when to call in sick to ensure your mental health is always in tip-top condition, wherever possible.

What is a mental health day?

A mental health day off is basically when you use some of your entitled sick days off to look after your psychological wellbeing. The Office for National Statistics statistics found that last year, Britons took 137 million sick days and of these, 15.8 million were for mental health issues (stress, depression, anxiety, bipolar or anything else). In comparison, 34 million days were taken due to minor illnesses such as coughs and colds. But of course, due to the stigma around discussing mental health issues with workmates and bosses, it’s likely the amount of people who needed mental health days off were actually a lot higher than what was reported.

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When can you take a mental health day off work?

There are loads of times it’s ok to take a mental health day. When you feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, when you’re severely worried about your day ahead, when you haven’t been sleeping well because of stress or mental health issues, when you know you will be unable to perform to the best of your ability at work due to anxiety, if you need to visit a doctor or healthcare professional, if you simply need the day to get on top of things because you feel low. There are loads of situations. It’s not up to anyone else to measure your stress levels, or ask you to prove how mentally unwell you feel, so make the call yourself and trust your own judgement where-ever possible. Also remember that these mental health days off don’t have to be spent in bed, and you shouldn’t feel like you need to stay in your PJs all day to justify being sick. In fact, as many people with mental health issues realise, this can sometimes make things worse, so it can be a good idea to be proactive and treat these days as additional weekend days. If you need to book yourself in to see a doctor by all means do that, but if you also want to spend your day exercising or getting a massage, or having a relaxing bath – don’t feel guilty! Do whatever you need to get yourself feeling better.

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What is the law around taking a mental health day off work?

As the BBC reports, there is no legal difference between taking a mental health sick day and a day off for a physical problem like a sprained ankle. Employers must legally protect the health and safety of those at work, and this includes mental health issues, too. According to a 2014 poll by Mind and YouGov, one in five (19%) people have called in to work due to stress. But interestingly, of those people, the vast majority (over 90%, in fact) told their employers totally different reasons for their absence such as having a headache (7%) or an upset stomach (44%). So what is it about discussing our mental health at work that has us all anxious? Obviously there’s still a huge stigma around revealing our psychological health to our boss and workmates. One UK study found that while more than half of employees (53%) feel comfortable talking about mental health at work, just 11% of those surveyed felt confident enough to reveal that mental health issues were the reason time was taken off work. Of that group, 15% even said they had faced disciplinary action for revealing why they had taken time off.

How to tell your boss you need a mental health day off work

Talking to your boss about mental health issues can be tough, but if you have ongoing mental health issues, it’s probably a good idea to let them know when you predict that it could impede on your work, or when you first get hired. As Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, told, your boss can even make provisions for you if you ask them to. “Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a legal duty to provide reasonable adjustments for an employee who has a disability, which can include a mental health problem if it has a substantial, adverse, and long term effect on normal day-to-day activities” she said.

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Speaking out about your mental health can be daunting, especially if you and your work colleagues have never broached the topic before. As the above viral tweet shows, however, sometimes, it’s totally worth it. If you don’t want to email the whole office about your day off (and that’s totally fine, no pressure) try asking to speak to your boss one-on-one before you take your mental health day, or being honest and upfront in an email when you need the time off. If you still can’t face the idea of talking about your mental health at work, don’t beat yourself up if you cop out and just say you’re “not feeling well”. It’s a big step to open up to others about something so personal, so not everyone needs to know if you take a mental health day off. Whatever works for you, is what’s best for you.

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