How Mental Health Days Work: When and How to Take a Mental Health Leave

We've always been taught that getting a job is a key part of adulthood, and that it’s crucial for our survival in the economy. Besides the financial aspect, having a job can also give us a sense of purpose by allowing us to contribute to society. However, despite the importance of our jobs, there are times when we crave for a break from the routine. This feeling often arises from two main reasons.

First, our work can become a major source of stress and dissatisfaction. This can stem from various factors such as a toxic work environment or management issues. More often than not, it's because we can't picture ourselves doing the same thing for much longer or because it’s as if we’re not growing in our roles.

And second, personal matters can spill over into our professional lives, making it difficult to focus and perform our best. While the adage "Leave your problems at home," is well-intentioned, life isn't always that simple, and the struggles we face outside the office can't always be left at the door.

In connection with these reasons, it's important to recognize when you need to hit pause, as these signs can indicate that you're at risk of burning out. Elizabeth Scott, a licensed psychologist specializing in health and wellness, identifies these signs:

i. Changes in eating habits

ii. Feeling cynical about work

iii. Difficulty concentrating

iv. Getting sick more often

v. Low energy

vi. Lack of motivation

vii. Feeling down

viii. Frustration

ix. Trouble focusing

x. Physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches

xi. Poor work performance

xii. Sleep problems

xiii. Using drugs or alcohol to cope with stress

xiv. Withdrawing from friends, family, or coworkers

It’s evident that these signs aren't just about physical health; they often reflect your mental health too. Dr. Scott emphasizes that you don’t have to wait until you’re completely exhausted to take action. This is where taking a mental health leave can make a difference.

For many Filipinos, the concept of mental health leave may be unfamiliar. Essentially, a mental health leave is a specific type of leave granted to employees to attend to their mental health needs. It's a recognition that mental well-being is as vital as physical health in the workplace.

This kind of leave encompasses various scenarios. On one hand, it could entail taking time off to undergo treatment for a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, just as one would for a physical ailment like a broken bone or flu. On the other hand, it might involve simply taking a break from work responsibilities to focus on self-care and recharge one's emotional batteries.

So, now that you are aware of it, how do you go about asking for it at work?

1. Choose the Right Person to Talk to. Consider speaking with those who are likely to understand your situation best, such as your team leader or supervisor. These individuals can offer support and guidance through the process.

2. Be Prepared to Be Vulnerable. Asking for mental health leave can feel daunting, but it's essential to highlight how your mental well-being is impacting your performance at work. Be honest about the difficulties you're facing and how they're affecting your ability to fulfill your responsibilities.

3. Maintain Professionalism. While it's important to be open about your struggles, remember to maintain professionalism in your communication. Approach the topic respectfully, and focus on how taking mental health leave will ultimately benefit both you and the organization.

Here's an example of how you can initiate the  conversation:

“Hi [Team Leader's Name]. I wanted to have a conversation with you about something personal. Recently, I've been struggling with my mental health, and it's been impacting my performance at work. I believe I need to take some time off to focus on my well-being and address these challenges effectively. I understand the importance of my role here, and I'm committed to returning to work refreshed and ready to contribute fully. I would appreciate your support and guidance in arranging for a mental health leave. Thank you for understanding.”

Let’s say you've got the green light for your mental health leave—how do you make the most of it?

1. Embrace Rest. Remind yourself that you deserve this break and try to push work-related thoughts aside. Give yourself permission to relax and unwind without guilt.

2. Prioritize Self-Care. Focus on the basics—sleep, nutrition, hygiene, and exercise. When was the last time you had a full night's sleep? Have you been nourishing your body with healthy food? Go for a warm bath, and some gentle stretching. These simple acts can work wonders for your mental well-being.

3. Reconnect. Dedicate time to activities that bring you joy and fulfillment, whether it's pursuing hobbies, spending quality time with family and friends, or simply enjoying solitude. Reconnecting with the things or people you love can reignite your passion for life and provide much-needed emotional nourishment.

4. Reflect and Plan. As you start to feel a sense of relief, take time to reflect on your recent challenges and try to seek answers to your questions. Use journaling or quiet contemplation to assess your thoughts and emotions. Then, begin to outline actionable steps for moving forward.

5. Seek Professional Help if Needed. If despite your efforts, you find yourself struggling to make progress or manage your mental health, don't hesitate to seek professional help. Therapists and counselors provide assistance during difficult times. Remember, asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

If your workplace doesn't currently provide mental health leave, you might wonder how to address your mental well-being effectively. Here are some options you may consider.

Here in the Philippines, there are various types of leave beyond mental health-specific options that you can explore. Each serves a distinct purpose, and depending on your circumstances, one may be well-suited to provide the break you require. Leaves such as maternity, paternity, solo parent, calamity, and bereavement leave may offer the flexibility you need to address the challenges you’re dealing with. It's also essential to review your employment contract or reach out to your HR department to understand your eligibility and the application process for these leaves.

When it comes to mental health concerns, however, there are two leave options we can suggest:

1. Vacation Leave. This leave is primarily intended for leisure, but it can also serve as a valuable opportunity to take a short break and prioritize your mental well-being. 

2. Indefinite Leave. While not mandated by law, some companies offer this leave. It can extend up to a month, or in rare cases, even up to a year, although it's typically unpaid. Taking a leave of absence requires careful consideration. It's best suited for situations when you're contemplating important life decisions or where significant problems need time for resolution; and if you're facing serious mental health conditions (such as an Eating Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), it's advisable to gather relevant documentation, such as a doctor's certificate, to support your leave request.

As adults, the pressure to juggle everything can feel overwhelming, and it's important to recognize that we're human beings with limits. That's why taking a break, especially for your mental health, is highly recommended. Taking time off to recharge isn't just a luxury—it's a necessity for your happiness and effectiveness. As Russell Eric Dobda wisely said, "Taking a break can lead to breakthroughs." So, go ahead and take that mental health leave! Your future self will thank you for it.

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