How to ask for mental health leave

If you battle with any mental health issues or have been mentally affected (as many of us have) by the pandemic, you might know that it’s a little harder to take a ‘sick’ day based on ‘invisible’ illnesses.

In the past, mental health has been a topic with a lot of stigmas around it. Mental health was not always considered serious and an attitude of ‘toughen up’ was often taken. This means that taking sick days for this kind of issue also had a stigma around it.  

Thankfully, this attitude is changing. Although this should have always been the case, it has recently become more acceptable, even encouraged, to talk about mental health openly and in the context of the workplace. Many organisations are introducing mental health days as a new form of leave.

However, this is not the case everywhere, and even if your workplace is open about mental illness, it can still be daunting to ask for mental health leave given the strong history of stigma around this topic.

So, we have put together a simple guide to help give you the confidence to ask for the mental health leave you may need (and deserve!).

Notice the signs

Sometimes we can be harsh on ourselves and just keep going and going even when we are already burnt out. We can get into a headspace of ‘we can’t afford to take time off'. But what about if you also can’t afford to keep going?

Mental health days don’t need to be taken only if you have a diagnosed mental illness. If you are feeling any of the below, it might be time to think about taking a mental health day:

  • Constant fatigue
  • Constantly sick/rundown
  • Stressed everyday
  • Irritable often
  • Low motivation for an extended period
  • Low moods several days in a row
  • Any telling symptoms from an existing mental illness
  • High anxiety over an extended period

By recognising your mental state and understanding you need a break, can help you gain confidence to ask for what you need. Know that once you start to take care of your mental health, the benefits will flow into other areas of your life.

Avoid placing external stigma onto your thoughts

It can be easy to place judgment on ourselves. This is possibly the biggest hurdle to jump over. We can look at a colleague with a similar workload and think, ‘but they’re fine!’ That doesn’t mean you have to be too. Every person handles things differently and has something different going on in their lives. Mental health issues can stem from anything from work to personal issues to chemical imbalances. We always like to remind people, if you broke your arm but still had things expected from you would you put off going to the hospital? The answer should be ‘no!’ The same goes for mental illness. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there, in need of healing.

Learn about your existing leave options

In Australia, as a full-time employee, National Employment Standards managed by the Fair Work Ombudsman recognise your right to mental health sick days. Employees can take up to 10 sick days each year (including personal/carer's leave). Fair Work says that this includes leave for stress.

Leave options might be standard or above average at your organisation. It can be helpful to educate yourself about your options and feel assured of what your rights are.

Additionally, under the Fair Work Act, your employer cannot discriminate against you if you are dealing with mental health issues. Meaning they cannot take any negative action such as demoting or dismissing you for your mental health. So you can remove this from your fears!

Decide what you are comfortable to share

When asking for a sick day, you don’t always have to disclose why you are taking it, especially if the issue is very personal. The same goes for mental health days. You can share as little or as much as you want. Evaluate the relationship you have with your manager, how private you want to be, if you’d like to share and be honest, and then start thinking about how you’ll ask.

Prepare how you will phrase your email/message

You can write out your message in a word document first before putting it into an email or message. This gives you the opportunity to make any changes after reading it back to yourself, without the fear of accidentally sending it out! It can also help you work through what you do or don't want to share. 

Approach your manager honestly

Whether you want to be completely open and share or if you want to be more subtle, always be honest and genuine in your approach. Any manager worth their while will understand if you do or don’t share.

A subtle example could be:

‘Hi Angie,

I hope you are well! Could I please use one of my five remaining sick days next Friday? Let me know if you have any concerns.

[Your sign off]’

If you wanted to go into more detail you could say:

‘Hi Ben,

I was hoping to use one of my sick days next Monday for a mental health day. I think it will really help me get back into a more productive headspace. Is this okay with you?

[Your sign off]’

You can share as much or as little as you like depending on your situation. 

Do you have any tips on asking for a mental health day? As an employer how do you like to be approached? As an employee what do you feel comfortable doing?

In this article: