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Burned out? How to take a mental health day to rest and recharge

82% of employed Gen Z employees want mental health days to combat burnout. Here’s how to take a day off to rest, recharge and reflect.
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According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report, employee stress remains at a record-high level post-pandemic with 44% of employees reporting they experienced a lot of stress the previous day.

The newest generation to enter the workforce is looking for concrete ways to combat this stress. In fact, according to a 2022 TalentLMS and BambooHR survey 82% of Gen Z employees want mental health days — and burnout and lack of work-life balance is a key reason why they would quit their job.

Another small survey found that baby boomers are the most likely to feel that mental health days are “absolutely necessary,” suggesting that the desire to take a day off to press pause and reset is something that spans the generations.

But wanting to take time off to focus on your mental health and actually doing it are two different things.

A recent Pew survey found that while 62% of employees say it’s extremely important to them to have a job that offers paid time off, almost half of them are leaving paid time off on the table.

If you feel like you're too busy to take time off or your PTO is limited, know that even a single day can feel like a break, and summer is an ideal time to get a day to yourself on the calendar. Here's how to spend a mental health day to maximize the benefits.

Why are mental health days important?

When you work without breaks you’re busy, but not necessarily productive. “It’s important to have opportunities to rest and reflect and recharge. It’s a mistake to think that more hours worked equals more productivity,” says Leah Weiss, Ph.D., author of “How We Work” and a Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer. “Our bodies and minds are not meant to push constantly — even elite athletes need to have rest as part of the process of becoming stronger.”

Tara O’Sullivan, chief creative officer at PepTalk, compares time off to sleep. “Sleep is when everything repairs itself and allows the body to recover. You need to allow your thought process to do the same,” she says.

Sacrifice your need to recharge and ultimately you sacrifice your health. “You’re not doing anybody any favors if you give up your mental health for a job. The healthiest people are the ones who take time for themselves and their families,” says Katherine Nelson, an instructor in the human resource management department at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia.

5 ways to make a mental health day happen

The demands of work will always be there. But with planning you can push them away for a day.

  • Start with your calendar. Does your work cycle have slower and busier periods? Pick a slower day and you’ll be more likely to stick with your plan.
  • Make a commitment. If you think you’ll be tempted to cancel your day off and come into work, plan something you won’t want to give up. Sign up for a seminar, buy tickets to a concert or sporting event, book a spa day or make plans with a friend.
  • Enlist your colleagues. Ask them what they think they’ll need when you’re out, so you can prepare. Set parameters — maybe they will call your cell phone if something truly critical comes up. That way you free yourself from checking email and texts.
  • Send a strong out-of-office message. Provide email addresses and phone numbers of colleagues people can contact while you’re out. Chris Dyer, author of “The Power of Company Culture,” recommends asking people to resend their messages after your return day, and deleting all the emails that came in while you were out. Really.
  • Trust your team. The world won’t end if you take a day off. “We all think we’re indispensable, but none of us are. If you got hit by a truck tomorrow your boss would figure out a workaround,” Nelson says.

How to spend a mental health day to get the most benefit

It might be tempting to just keep the day wide open, but that’s a mistake. You won’t be rejuvenated if you feel like you wasted the day watching Netflix. And don’t tackle a to-do list, either. This is not a day for oil changes and dentist appointments. Think about what you need, and design your day ahead of time.

Know what makes you feel better. For a lot of people, top choices are spending time outdoors, movement and social connection. Plan activities where you get “lost in the flow,” says Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., a board-certified clinical psychologist and author of “Own Best Friend: Eight Steps to a Life of Purpose, Passion, and Ease.”

Learning can be restorative, so if learning isn’t part of your job try using this day for expanding your brain. Practice an instrument, take an art lesson or attend a workshop.

Not sure what you would like to do? “Ask yourself what kinds of things you would do if you had six months to live,” says Karissa Thacker, Ph.D., author of “The Art of Authenticity.” Is there a scaled-down version of those things you could do in a free day? If travel is on your list, see a nearby city or attraction. If it’s spending time with your kids, consider pulling them out of school for a trip to the zoo or a ball game.

“One day off here and there can be a fantastic reminder of life outside of work. There is always another perspective. You just have to move to see it,” O’Sullivan says.