One of my worst depressive episodes happened in 2016. I was going through a huge amount of personal stress. I’d just left a 14-year relationship. I was thinking about how to survive financially and realizing I’d likely have to leave my beloved city of San Francisco behind. I was broke, sad, and scared. And that was before the depression really set in.
I found myself struggling to get out of bed. I couldn’t find the energy to walk down the hall to get the mail. I was eating old cans of beans to avoid going to the grocery store. My body felt like it weighed ten tons, and my brain was full of glue: any thought or feeling that managed to get out of it was a sticky, unmanageable mess.
But I sure wasn’t going to miss work. Though I had plenty of unused sick days as part of my benefits package, it never occurred to me to stay home. Sick days weren’t for brain troubles. That would be weak. Right? Sick days were for the flu at the very least.
Looking back, staying home should have been an obvious decision. But in the moment, I was afraid – would I have to say why I was sick, or in what way? Would I have to defend myself? I just didn’t know. So I tried to keep working as if nothing were wrong, until suddenly I couldn’t: on a Tuesday afternoon, I left the office in tears after staring for hours at a pile of work that I couldn’t begin to manage. It was scary and embarrassing. I took four sick days in a row then, out of sheer necessity, while I climbed out of the darkest part of the pit.
Let’s get something straight: clinical depression and other mental illnesses are illnesses. They’re not laziness, making an excuse, or a lack of trying. They come with symptoms that make work and other parts of daily life very difficult and sometimes impossible. When severe, those symptoms require sick days. This is true when you’ve got a diagnosed condition, but also when you’re experiencing the debilitating symptoms of situational depression that can happen with a loss or other life issue.
Mental health sick days are not “self-care” in the sense of treating ourselves to a luxurious relaxing spa day. As with physical sick days, they are tools to provide needed care, rest, and recovery when illness makes it impossible to be productive. Like physical sick days, they help us get back up to speed more quickly than if we tried to muscle through.
It can be hard to take a sick day, whatever the reason -- there is a lot of pressure in our culture to be “on” all the time. Here are a few things to think about to help you know what to say and how to say it:
- Learn about your company’s rules and policies. If you are short on sick days or need help understanding the protocol, you could talk with HR. If you are among the ~30% of workers in the U.S. who have no paid sick leave, this equation is even more complicated (and frustrating!). You may be eligible for benefits under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so doing some investigating is worthwhile.
- Remember that sometimes company and team culture is not just about official rules. Some managers may make a point of discouraging you from taking sick days, even though they’re allowed and paid for. This is lame, and a really bad strategy for keeping good employees, but it happens. Pay attention to negative comments about others who take sick days, or little hints dropped about sick days as a weakness. Try to be prepared. If you are concerned your manager thinks you are abusing the sick day policy, it may be time to have a further discussion with HR.
- Remember that your work and the work of your company is not going to fall to pieces if you give yourself time to rest. In fact, working when you’re sick, fatigued, and fog-brained may lead to mistakes that are more damaging and harder to recover from than being out for a bit.
- Know how your boss wants you to tell them. Some prefer a detail-free email, some prefer a phone call. You don’t have to describe your symptoms up front, or even say whether your illness is physical or mental. While your boss is legally allowed to ask, many don’t. A simple, “I’m too sick to come in today,” should do the trick.
- Understand your manager’s feelings about occasional work from home days. Sometimes you feel well enough to do some work, but too depressed to do much humaning. If face-to-face stuff is out of reach but you think you can work in isolation, this might be a good tool.
- Especially if you know you have a condition that may warrant a mental health sick day, do what you can to be as prepared as you can to help your team cover for you while you’re gone.