Mental health days: How to take a break, and really get the rest you need

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A day off for our mental health or our general health can make all the difference in our ability to perform at our best. Madelyn Parker, a web designer at software firm Olark in Michigan, went viral when she tweeted her boss’s favorable response to her announcement that she was taking a mental health day. Hundreds of people shared their appreciation of boss Ben Congleton’s support for her taking time off. Many people described how they wished they could do the same openly and honestly.

In his Medium post, Congleton stated that taking time off, whether for a mental health day or even for a general recuperation day is important:

It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different. http://bit.ly/2uupcmN

Congleton, like many executives, recognizes that balancing work time with real time off is key in this knowledge economy. We all need recovery time — especially when we push hard. Tony Schwartz, head of The Energy Project, reported in his book The Power of Full Engagement that research on athletes shows that the top athletes allow for plenty of recovery time. When we push too hard and don’t allow time to recover our mental health suffers and our general health suffers. We don’t sleep well, feel well, or perform well and our capacity for creative responses declines.

Ben, the Olark CEO states, “As executives, we lead organizations made up of people who’ve come together to make an impact. Our job is to empower and motivate our teams to maximize the impact of our organization for our customers, our employees, our shareholders, and the world. At Olark our mission is to make business human.”

Medical professionals agree as well. Dr. Heather Towery, medical director of Advance Medical, in an interview with Fast Company says that speaking openly about all medical conditions is vital. “That anxiety, depression, bipolar illness are viewed through a different lens than other medical conditions, like cancer or hypertension, is the first barrier that needs to be broken down,” she argues.

Rest and renewal is part of creating general health overall. So why do so many of us feel guilty when taking time off? How can we take a break, and really get the rest we need?

In my book, An Oasis in Time: How a Day of Rest Can Save Your Life (Rodale, 2017) I document why regular rest is so important and I show how to get it. Rest is part of the Western spiritual tradition, the Sabbath. We can draw on the strength of that tradition whether we are religious or not. Sometimes I think that I would be the last person promoting the idea of regular weekly rest. I tend to be a workaholic and I resist rest. But I learned to keep Shabbat, partly because I was so exhausted and I needed a good excuse to rest. It’s one of the Ten Commandments. I figured that if keeping a Sabbath was up there with Thou Shalt Not Steal, it’s must be important.

  1. First of all, know what your non-stop life is costing you. No matter how we hold being busy as a badge of honor, that feeling that there is always something more to do can erode our sense of equanimity and well being. Designate an hour this weekend when you will be “off the clock and off the hook
  2. Name your start time and end time for that hour. Begin your hour off deliberately. Even if all of your work demands are screaming for action, just stop for one hour. The root of the Hebrew word for Sabbath, Shavat, means, “stop.” That’s it: Stop.Then, go back to action with a signal to yourself that you are getting back in gear.
  3. Consciously put down your digital devices for that hour. Put your phone in a cell phone sleeping bag. Turn off your computer. Put your tablet away. Just for the moment don’t check any digital device or any app. Set it up so that nothing will happen for the next hour that desperately needs you. Your children’s care-giver should be alerted not to disturb you unless it’s a true emergency.
  4. Slow down. Take a breath. Go for a slow walk. Do a body scan. Slowing down actually changes your brain and makes the pleasures of the present moment more accessible to you.
  5. Now, allow yourself to stop trying to get anything done. That’s it, you are off the clock and off the hook. For this hour you are enough, you have done enough, you are good enough. Then you can jump back into the fray.

This hour will help with your sense of efficacy, power and joy. Perhaps you can eventually move to taking a few hours off a week, and then expand it to an afternoon, or a whole day.

My response to Madalyn is thank you so much for being courageous in taking the time off that you needed. And to Ben the CEO of the company Olark, thank you for creating a place to work that really values human beings. We aren’t machines. We need to rest and renew.