When To Take A Mental Health Day

Taking a mental health day can actually increase your creativity and productivity. Here's how to do it, guilt-free.
July 12, 2011

When I was younger, my mom would sometimes allow me a mental health day. She understood that sometimes you just need a little breather, and that need doesn’t always coincide with a built-in holiday like spring recess or President’s Day.

You might do the same for your kids, and if you do, you know it’s fairly easy to get them to take you up on your offer. It’s a lot harder to refocus the same strategy on yourself. Why? You probably love your work. You’re entwined in it. Taking a day off—particularly an unplanned for, unexpected day—can feel like taking a step backwards.

But it’s not, says Dr. Debra Condren, a business psychologist, coach and author of Ambition is Not a Dirty Word. “For small business owners who love their work, studies show that they are less likely to take vacations, and you can lump mental health days into that same category. For them, work feels more like play sometimes, and it’s hard because entrepreneurs often have a lot of balls in the air. But there comes a point when you are multi-tasking so much that it decreases your productivity and increases your stress.”

That’s a point you don’t want to hit—and if you have in the past, you know that it feels like a wall. Your creativity is shot, your productivity is nowhere to be found. In other words, you’re treading water. Well-planned mental health days can help you avoid these bumps. Need more convincing? Read on.

  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’ve no doubt heard that saying before, applied to all sorts of situations. Well it works here too: When you’re sprinting, you’re not coming up for air. You can’t maintain that pace indefinitely—you may not be able to maintain it for even a few months. If you don’t want your drive and dedication to fizzle out, you have to treat your business as a marathon, which means pacing yourself, slowing down when appropriate, and resting when necessary. “This conservation of energy concept is really vital for small business owners to understand. You need to value pacing yourself, and you have to learn how to set really good boundaries, with yourself and with other people,” explains Condren.
  • Set a schedule. You really need to commit to this, and that means putting it on your calendar. Condren recommends one day a month; you have to decide on your own needs, but I wouldn’t go more than two months without a day of mental relaxation. Once your day is scheduled, treat it like you would an important meeting or business trip—in other words, don’t blow it off.
  • Recognize the signs. You likely already recognize them, actually. The bigger problem is pushing them to the back of your mind. But you’re not doing yourself any favors by working through mental exhaustion. If you’re not sleeping well, you’re overwhelmed during the day and can’t get anything done, your creative juices have run dry, you feel burned out or even physically sick, you need a mental health day. “If you have to kick yourself out of bed, as opposed to when you’re doing meaningful, challenging work that you love, and you don’t seem to be checking things off your list, you’ve lost the ability to do higher level brainstorming, that’s when your state of mind is signaling to you and your body that you have to take a day,” points out Condren. Some of you are probably nodding your heads—maybe you feel this way right now. This is your wake up call: Take tomorrow off.
  • Spend your time wisely. Tearing yourself away from the office is tough business, I know. So make the most of your day off. To do that, you have to chuck the PDA, turn off the computer, put a moratorium on your voicemail (set up a few out-of-office response messages, letting people know an alternate contact, in case of an emergency—it will give you peace of mind and hopefully take a few things off your plate that can be handled in your absence). Then spend some time doing something that relaxes you—take a solo sabbatical day, in the words of Condren. Go to the movies. Exercise. Read a fun book by the pool. Play a game of golf. Get a massage. Anything that will allow you to recharge your batteries and take your mind out of the office.
  • Get rid of the guilt. Listen, I know how this goes. I have the same problem. And particularly now, when the economy is shaky, it can be very easy to feel guilty if you don’t have your nose to the grindstone day in and day out. But remember that this is for the greater good: “Think of this as a way to protect your small business, and to protect your passion for what you do. If you allow yourself these mental breaks, you’ll be more productive afterwards,” says Condren. She’s right: The day after a mental health day, I’m always raring to go.

Jean Chatzky is financial editor of NBC's "Today" show, a contributing editor at More magazine and author of "Money 911: Your Most Pressing Money Questions Answered, Your Money Emergencies Solved." She recently launched the Jean Chatzky Score Builder in partnership with smartcredit.com. Check out her blog at jeanchatzky.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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