Many of us experience anxiety or high levels of stress in our lives, and work can often be a contributing factor. Anxiety is also a common mental health issue, with anxiety disorders affecting around 30% of all adults at some point in their life.
Ongoing stress and anxiety can have a negative impact on your mind and body, so it’s really important you don’t try to ignore it.
The American Psychological Association explains that chronic stress: “can result in anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. It can also contribute to health conditions such as depression, obesity, and heart disease.”
If you’re going through a time of high stress, it might be time to take a break from work to help you get things back on track.
Mental Health Breaks Are Valid
It can be worrying to bring up your mental health at work, and due to stigma, you might even feel as though it’s not a ‘real’ reason to take time off. However, your mental health is just as important as your physical health, and you should prioritize it in the same way.
Just as you would take a break from work if you were unwell physically, it’s completely valid to take a break when you’re struggling mentally. I have struggled with mental illness for many years, and the positive difference prioritizing my mental health has made is amazing. Don’t brush your own mental health under the carpet.
Although it’s tempting to try and push through it, stress and anxiety can impact your performance at work. Harvard Medical School states that stress, especially ongoing stress in the workplace, can lead to burnout.
Thankfully, progress is being made in reducing stigma around mental illness and people are having more open conversations on the topic. It’s becoming more normalized to take time off for your mental health and a lot of employers are becoming more understanding.
Signs That You Need a Break
As I mentioned earlier, life can be stressful. So how do you know that you’re so stressed or anxious that you need a break? There are lots of signs of stress you can watch out for to let you know when it’s time.
Signs that you might need a break include:
- Not sleeping well: You might be experiencing insomnia or find that you’re very restless in bed. Some people experience nightmares.
- Negative mindset: Often people start to notice they’re looking at things from a more negative perspective and are struggling to see the positives.
- Feeling hopeless: You may be feeling a sense of hopelessness about your life and your future.
- Lacking motivation: This can include at work and in your personal life, for example finding you don’t want to complete tasks and are putting them off until later.
- Finding it hard to concentrate: You might struggle to focus at work or on tasks at home. You might even struggle to focus on things you usually enjoy, for example, you might get distracted while watching TV or reading.
- Low confidence: Some people find they’re being hard on themselves or feeling bad about themselves, even if they’re usually quite confident.
- Being irritable: You might have a short temper and find yourself snapping at those around you.
- Not making time for self-care: You might find you aren’t maintaining good eating habits, you aren’t exercising, drinking water, or keeping up with personal hygiene. You may also stop making time for things you enjoy.
- Fatigue: It’s common to feel exhausted and have no energy.
- Feeling tense: Your muscles might feel constantly tense and you may feel on edge (this is part of the body’s stress response).
- Feeling very emotional or tearful: This may seem out of the blue and be unusual for you.
- Changes in appetite: You might be eating more or less than usual.
How to Ask for Time Off
So if you notice these signs, how do you ask for time off? A good first step is to check your contract or your employee guidebook to look at your company’s rules about taking time off.
Some companies might be more flexible and understanding, while others may be a bit harder to ask for time off (but don’t let this put you off).
In America, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) means that companies with over 50 employees and all public agencies have to give you time off for any health concerns that prevent you from working. However, that doesn’t mean they are required to pay you while you’re off work, although some companies may offer sick pay.
Barbara Ricci, board member at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), explains that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal to discriminate against an employee with a mental health issue. This means that if you have a diagnosed mental illness, you may have a legal right to take time off when needed.
If you feel comfortable within your company, you can approach your boss or the HR department directly to discuss the time off you need. If you feel like there may be some resistance, it’s a great idea to go to your doctor first to get a written note to back you up.
If you have ongoing mental illness and are under the care of a mental health professional, it’s well worth talking to them first and asking them to write a letter to your boss.
When it’s time to have the conversation, book a meeting with your boss or the HR department. During the meeting, be open, honest, and clear. However, that doesn’t mean you have to tell them anything you don’t feel comfortable with, or that you need to go into detail about what is causing your stress.
The mental health charity Mind explains that you don’t have to go into too many personal details. Instead, you should focus on how your mental health impacts your job.
If you’re particularly nervous about the meeting, jotting down some notes to outline what you want to say can be helpful. Make them clear and easy to read, so you can quickly glance at them if you need direction.
How Long Should Your Break Be?
Choosing how long to take off work can be difficult and it’s a very personal choice. It depends on how you’re feeling, your mental health history, and how much rest you feel you need.
If you don’t have an ongoing mental illness and feel you simply need some downtime to reduce your stress levels, a few days may be enough. If you are experiencing severe stress or have a mental illness, you might need to take a week or two (or more) to get things back on track.
How long you can take might depend on your employer and how much time off they will agree to. You may be able to take a few days and then extend your break if needed.
If you’re unsure about the time you need, talking to your doctor to get some advice can be useful. In my experience, they quite often suggest an amount of time that might be best for you.
How to Make the Most of Your Time Off
While you’re off, it’s important you use your time wisely. Try not to feel guilty and attempt to compensate for being off work by taking on more tasks and projects in your personal life (although this is an easy habit to fall into). Instead, nurture your mental health.
Take plenty of time to rest and relax. When you’re done resting, try resting some more. If you’re struggling to unwind, practicing mindfulness can be really helpful.
Mindfulness helps you to focus on being in the present and really encourages a deep sense of relaxation. Why not try this 10-minute mindfulness meditation on letting go?
Being off work for your mental health isn’t exactly the same as being off for your physical health: you don’t have to stay in bed or in the house. Instead, make time to do things you enjoy and that help you feel happy, such as going for a walk.
Try to get back into a routine of self-care, so that you’re looking after yourself properly. I like to think of this as setting yourself up for success.
It’s also a good idea to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Sometimes getting things off your chest can be helpful. You could talk to a loved one or even a professional if you feel that would be useful for you.
Finally, it’s a good idea to make a plan to reduce stress when you return to work. This might include making more time for yourself at home, implementing a self-care routine, asking others for help more often, practicing regular mindfulness, or attending regular therapy sessions for example.
Your Mental Health Matters
We all need a break sometimes: it doesn’t make you weak or a failure. In fact, recognizing that you’re struggling mentally and taking action to deal with it is a sign of true strength.
Remember that there’s no shame in struggling with your mental health. Don’t ever let stigma stop you from doing what’s best for you.