2022-05-16 well-being

On taking mental health days

Here is a post I wrote at work for Mental Health Awareness month.

Hey everyone,

Earlier this year, I took a “sick day”, but behind the scenes, it was actually a “mental health day.” I did not have a cold, I did not have the flu, I did not have Covid. Physically I was fine. I was just not feeling well, mentally. I found it extremely hard to focus and it was simply not worth pushing through.

I would be surprised if this does not happen to everybody at some point or another, for personal reasons or for professional reasons. I don’t believe anybody is completely immune to vicissitudes of life.

I’m happy I took the day off. I talked with friends (thank you friends!), I read, I went on a really long walk, and I lay in bed. It helped a lot and I felt much better the day after.

I’m grateful we live in an era where it is far more acceptable to talk about and acknowledge mental health. I have seen first-hand the effects of neglecting one’s mental health, and in my opinion, the long-term damage to oneself and others is easy to underestimate.

Everyone experiences periods of stress in their life, but the key is how you deal with it. Stress by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Often, we seek out stress - such as physically demanding exercise or challenging work projects - because we know it makes us stronger. This is called “hormesis”. Stressors give us an opportunity to learn and adapt. Without adversity, we could not grow.

But there is an absolutely critical assumption which underpins all healthy adaptation to stress: we must set aside time for recovery.

If we experience short-term stress, called “acute stress”, but do not have adequate time to recover, it instead calcifies into long-term “chronic stress”. The more severe the stress – such as a deluge of work, an illness, or a death in the family – the longer we must recover. Without time to recover, we become chronically stressed. And chronic stress correlates with almost every long-term health risk you can imagine.

Again, this does not mean we should avoid stress, but that we should be aware of it and couple it with adequate recovery.

Now, what about recovery? Everyone recovers in different ways, and probably the only thing I’d recommend is, try a lot of different things. Go out in the sun, talk to friends, talk to a therapist, meditate, travel, read a book, watch a movie. Sometimes, the best form of recovery is simply time. You’ll need to experiment with what works for you.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Seriously. Most people love to help. I am routinely surprised by how many people want to help when I simply have the courage to ask. So just ask.

Now, the final thing: “Can I really take time off work? Isn’t this a trivial excuse?” I imagine most of your colleagues would be horrified to learn they are making your life miserable when you are not feeling well. Please don’t be afraid to take time off for yourself.

Yes, we all have work to do; yes, we all want results. But we are running a marathon, not a sprint, and to win a marathon, you need to stay healthy. Prioritizing mental health is one way to do that.

Have a good one,