For most of the pandemic, Frankie, a social worker living in Kentucky, took barely a single day off work. She had her usual weekends and national holidays, but she didn’t use any PTO until March 2021 — and that was only because she had to have her gallbladder removed. Instead, she threw herself into her work.
About a month after the gallbladder surgery, however, she realized she was hitting a wall. “I was so stressed out by my medical bills from the surgery, and in my field we also deal with a lot of emotionally exhausting things,” Frankie tells Refinery29. “I just got to the point where I realized I really needed a day to myself.” That night, Frankie emailed her boss to say she was taking a mental health day and wouldn’t be coming in tomorrow. When she woke up, she called the hospital and asked about payment options for her bills. Once that stress was off her shoulders, she masked up and went to her favorite park.
Taking PTO has been particularly fraught in the past year. “Especially earlier on in the pandemic, people were not taking [time off] because, for one, there was no place to go,” says Lisa Frydenlund, an HR Knowledge Advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management. “Staycations are good, but not as fun as vacations. Plus, taking time away may not have been a whole lot different from your regular life if you were working at home with four-legged creatures — I mean dogs! — or children or family members. It was still in the same space and you were not getting a moment to yourself.”
But even pre-pandemic, WFH employees were likely to take fewer breaks and sick days than those who worked in offices, a 2014 Stanford University study found. This trend only worsened over the last year. Approximately 66% of employees working from home thought their employer would disapprove of them taking a sick day for anything other than COVID-19, a study of 2,000 people by OnePoll and ColdCalm found.
WFHers often felt that with no risk of spreading a cold — or something worse — to other employees, no need to suffer through a commute, and much less pressure to look professional (no one can see your sweatpants on Zoom), they couldn’t justify taking a sick day. “There’s a different expectation because before, you couldn’t get up and go to the office if you were really sick, but at home you can tell yourself, ‘I can roll over to my chair and make it work,’” Frankie says.
Fear may also explain why employees have been so reluctant to leave their (remote) desks. Unemployment rates soared to 14.7% amid the pandemic — a high reminiscent of the Depression era — compared to 3.5% in February 2020. This prompted some folks to overwork themselves, hoping to prove their worth to their employers.
Of course, workers’ anxieties about taking time off aren’t always imagined. If you're working in a toxic environment, you may not feel comfortable taking vacation or sick days, even if they’re available to you, says Denise M. Rousseau, PhD, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who has researched worker well-being. Many other Americans don’t have any PTO to take, especially folks who work for smaller employers, says Dr. Rousseau. The U.S. enforces no federal or state statutory minimum paid vacation, and only some states require paid sick leave. And many people aren’t able to choose where they work based solely, or even partially, on PTO policy.
It’s often the workers who need time off the most who don’t have it. “One factor in Hispanic and [Black] populations being more likely to contract COVID-19 is employment in occupations associated with public contact and that cannot be done remotely,” Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said during a discussion of the American Rescue Plan. “The sad fact is that most workers in these occupations are less able to be absent from their job or to have paid time off.”
Meaghan Rice, PsyD, a Talkspace therapist, says that the onus to ensure workers have and take adequate time off should fall on employers. “Vacation and sick leave are good for the worker and employer," Dr. Rousseau agrees. "They help people recover, especially if they have discretion over when they take the time… It’s just good work hygiene to insist people take time off."
But Dr. Rousseau adds that it’s also up to employees to advocate for themselves if they need a break. Some people truly can’t take time off — but many others don’t take PTO often because they’re afraid of upsetting their bosses or coworkers. Sometimes that fear is based in reality, and other times it has more to do with self-inflicted pressure. It's important to know the difference, and advocate for yourself when possible. “We get what we tolerate,” Dr. Rousseau says. "You don’t owe your employer your mental and physical health. These are resources only you can control.” She recommends that people who struggle with letting themselves take a break remind themselves that it’s not just normal to take time off and sick leave — it's critical.
PTO really is that serious, especially this year. “We need more recognition of the need for recovery,” Dr. Rousseau says. “Current events and things going on in the workplace are driving employee depression and anxiety, and taking huge tolls, not only on the mental well-being and physical well-being of employees, but also on their performance on the job.”
The lack of time off may have been less damaging had the pandemic not lasted so long. Early on, most people weren’t sure how long we’d been dealing with COVID-19 and the related restrictions, so they often planned to just wait it out — in another month, many of us kept telling ourselves, we’d be back to normal. “We were pushing through,” says Andrea Agalloco, MSW, LICSW, a social worker and mental wellness counselor at Liv by Advantia Health.
But, although the vaccination roll-out is looking successful, a year-plus into the COVID-19 crisis, it’s now clear that a return to workplace normalcy is going to be a long, slow process, she says. And workers can no longer afford to wait to take time off. Forty-one percent of employees are feeling burned out from their work amid the pandemic, the Society for Human Resource Management’s COVID-19 research report found. People like Frankie are hitting their breaking points now. And though it seems like a small step, a mental health day can be hugely beneficial.
Over time, a lack of breaks will begin to wear you down and disrupt your ability to function in all areas of your life — work and home. “If you’re starting to notice burn out and it’s harder to get up in the morning or harder to fall asleep at night because you’re overstimulated from your workday, you’re probably not operating in terms of your full potential,” says Agalloco. “When someone is able to take a break, oftentimes they can return to their work and feel more able to do it.”
A day off can also be the wake up call you need if you’re in a workplace with problems. It can give you the energy to get yourself out of a toxic situation, Dr. Rousseau says. “One of the features of PTO and recovery days is they get people out of the tunnel vision from day-to-day pressure so that they can put their head up, look around, and reassess,” she notes. “That reappraisal and looking around at the broader options, they're important for the mental wellbeing and for [figuring out] the next steps you take.”
“Increased irritability, an increased need to isolate, and a higher tendency to get lost in our own dysfunctional thoughts” are a few indicators that you may need a break, Rice says. So are “escape fantasies,” which is when you wake up in the morning and almost immediately begin plotting excuses to call in sick. If you’ve noticed these red flags — or if you are at all physically ill — it’s likely time to take a day off.
If you can’t take a full day because of childcare responsibilities or your employer’s policies, Agalloco stresses the importance of carving out space to decompress and focus on your own mental health needs. Try to find 30 minutes a few times a week to do something that you love — or to give yourself a chance to rest. “Listen to your body and your mind and give it what it needs during this time,” she says.
A few hours or a day can be restorative, but it’s not a cure-all. “If you feel like you can't unwind, even when engaging in hobbies or otherwise enjoyable activities, it means that it's time to rethink your personal care plan,” Dr. Rice says. Seeking the guidance of a therapist can be helpful in reducing burnout; so can turning to less-formal social support systems, like family members or friends.
But for many people, a mental health day (or even a half-day) is a great starting point on the road back from burnout. “Taking time away from work means leaning into disconnecting, relaxing, and being present,” Dr. Rice says. “We know that down time actually boosts productivity down the road and boosts our creativity in the moment. We would all be better people if we took time off from work.”
This was the case for Frankie, who says she came back to work on April 7 after her mental health day feeling refreshed. “I needed the day to handle things with my medical bills, but also to just breathe,” she says. “I’ve been so stressed, and I’ve been crying my eyes out. I knew I needed to do something about that and take the time for myself ”
At the park, Frankie and her boyfriend enjoyed the nice weather, held hands, and sat on their favorite bench, where they used to hang out and talk pre-COVID. “There was a nostalgia to it,” she says. “It was freeing.”