The Problem With Taking So-Called "Mental Health" Days

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calling_in_sick_slide1_annaIllustrated by Anna Sudit.
Dear Businesslady,

The other morning I woke up, thought about going in to work, and was just like “nope.” I called in sick, then spent the day catching up on a bunch of chores that had been stressing me out for ages (along with spending some quality time binge-watching TV). I do this periodically, and it always makes me feel much more refreshed when I go back into work the next day.

But, when I mentioned this “hooky day” to a friend/coworker, she was appalled, and made me feel like a horrible, dishonest person for taking the day off. Is my moral compass totally out of whack, or is it okay to take a “mental health day” when you’re not really sick?

Signed,
(Cough, Cough) I Think I Caught That Thing That’s Going Around


Dear Coughy,

Ahh, the politics and ethics of sick days. This is a complicated issue that elicits a lot of strong opinions; my own stance tends to be pretty liberally in favor of “take care of yourself by any means necessary,” but there are still a lot of other contingencies to consider when you’re lying in bed and debating whether or not you can stand to face your job.

The most important issue is how legit sick days are handled in your particular workplace. When someone’s out, does everyone — or even just your boss — roll their eyes and question that person’s work ethic? Are you in the type of job where other people have to pick up your slack if you’re not there?

If the answer to these first two questions is “yes,” then an unexpected absence is unlikely to reflect well on you, and you’re probably better off saving your sick days for real illnesses or other emergencies. (Although the first situation suggests a shitty work culture, particularly if there’s no direct relationship between job duties and flawless attendance.)

Another factor to consider is whether you have paid time off or a flexible policy regarding unpaid time off. If you’re given sick time, then the expectation is that it’s there to be used. Similarly, if you’re in a situation where you’re not paid for sick days, but there’s no real stigma around using them, then you should be at your discretion to decide that a day off is worth the financial hit. If your job uses a shared Paid Time Off pool that includes both vacation and sick days, then that’s implicitly empowering you to allocate that time off as you see fit—but it also might mean that too many “mental-health days” will end up interfering with your vacation plans in the future.

And, about that phrase you (and I) used: “mental-health day.” I know this is often used interchangeably with “hooky day,” but it conflates “I am feeling too depressed to deal with my workplace” with “I really want to catch up on Orange Is the New Black.” I’m all for decreasing the stigma around mental illness, and that includes acknowledging that even people who don’t have a Diagnosed Psychiatric Condition occasionally get that “nope” feeling at the start of the workday. (And if your version of self-care involves mainlining OITNB, no judgment here.) But culturally, I’d like to advocate for reserving “mental-health day” for instances where there really is something going on emotionally, and “hooky day” for times when you’re just feeling (for lack of a better word) lazy.

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Similarly, if you feel you have to out-and-out lie in order to feel justified in taking the time off, then that suggests that perhaps your job is not the place for less-than-medically-confirmed sick days. My personal policy is to be utterly truthful: “I’m not feeling that great, so I’m going back to sleep to see if that helps,” or “I feel like I might be coming down with something, so I’m going to stay home”; and so on.

Don’t weave some elaborate tale about the food poisoning you don’t actually have; it’ll just put you in an awkward position when you’re back at work and you have to keep the story going. And also, unless you want to torpedo your career for stupid reasons, don’t call in “sick” and then go to some very public event where your ruse might be discovered (or if you do, promise me you won’t document it on Facebook/Instagram/Tumblr/your social-media portal of choice. Even Google+ isn’t safe).

Bottom line: If you’ve got the time off to use and your job is such that your absence doesn’t ruin your coworkers’ day, I say take it. But if you find yourself regularly dreading the workday, then you may want to take your self-care beyond the occasional day off and look into therapy and/or finding yourself a less soul-sucking job.
—Businesslady

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