So you need to take a mental health day off work. Federal laws protect workers with mental health issues.1 Local sick leave laws may guarantee your time-off rights. Or, your company’s time-off policy may accommodate your request. Once you know the rules, go ahead and ask for a mental health day off of work.
How to Know You Need a Mental Health Day Off
If you suffer from depression or anxiety, you’re well aware when you’re having an off day and need to step away from work to regroup. Consider taking time off for mental health for therapist appointments, medication refills, or simply to get your bearings after an emotional or psychiatric event.
Common reasons to take a mental health day off may include taking the time you need for yourself to recover from a crying jag, a bipolar episode, an anxiety attack, or any other mental health issue. In fact, in many states, you can take a mental health day off for domestic violence issues, as well as family mental health needs — such as spending the day dealing with a child’s mental health condition or helping a parent who is struggling with psychiatric problems like dementia.
The challenge, as noted by Pew Research, is that only 76% of all US companies offer paid sick leave.2 The percentage of smaller firms (1-49 employees) providing paid sick leave drops to 64%. If you work for a business that doesn’t offer paid sick leave, it’s possible your employer may deny your time off request, or that you may need to take that time off unpaid. Further, the smallest of firms, such as those with 15 employees or less, are often exempt from Federal and state labor law enforcement due to potential business hardship.
Of course, even if you work for a company with a generous paid-time-off program, a mental health day shouldn’t be used in violation of your company policy. For example, binge drinking on the weekend isn’t a good excuse for taking the following Monday off, as you may risk disciplinary action. Mental health days, as a sick leave benefit, should be reserved for a valid reason.
How to Ask Your Boss for a Mental Health Day Off
It’s crucial to understand your employment rights and be aware of your company’s time-off policy before you ask your boss for a mental health day off. You’ll want to consider the culture you work in and what you’re going to say. In most cases, you don’t need to provide a specific reason to your employer when you request time off to deal with a mental health issue.
Let’s walk through some concrete actions you can take.
Review Your Employment Rights
If your employer has 50 or more employees, or you’re under a federal labor contract, you’re protected by federal labor and anti-discrimination laws that prevent your employer from penalizing you for taking time off for mental health issues. Further, if you work in one of the states with paid sick leave laws—like California, Oregon, New Jersey, or Washington D.C—your state ensures employers offer sick leave you can use to take a mental health day off.3
Abide by Your Company Handbook
The place to learn about your company’s sick leave policy, how many days you get, and what you can use them for is likely in your company’s employee handbook. The average company offers employees seven days of sick leave a year.4 That number may grow the longer you’ve been at a firm. Government agencies and trade unions tend to provide even more paid time off than private businesses offer.
Firms with 50 or more employees must abide by additional regulations that give you time off (albeit unpaid) for family medical issues. That includes mental health needs. Of course, there are requirements, likely documented in the “leave” section of the company handbook, that cover these policies, like family medical leave or parental leave. Mental health time off is similar to any medical or health need protected under labor laws.
If your company doesn’t have a handbook, ask your manager or HR representative for a copy of the time-off policy. Is it paid time off, or unpaid? Can you request time off work for any reason, including mental health, or only for specific conditions, such as when you have a fever? What does the company require when you need to take a day off? Is there a form you must submit? What’s the process? Who must be notified, and when?
Consider Your Company Culture
Once you know what the official policy is, consider your company culture. Some firms are very strict. If you don’t follow the exact time-off request process, or fill in the PTO form correctly, they may deny your request for time off. Other firms allow time off for health issues but may judge or harass you when you ask for time off for mental health. That’s not legal, but it’s hard to prevent. In those cases, it’s best to share as little information as possible when you ask for a day off for mental health.
On the flipside, in a company with a culture of inclusiveness and mental health awareness, asking your boss for a mental health day off work may be as simple as saying, “hey, boss, I need a mental health day off!” Leaders in these firms may talk openly about employee mental health and wellness, offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), and provide workshops on topics such as stress management. They realize mental health issues are common in the workplace.
In fact, the American Heart Association found that 76% of employees report having an issue that affected their mental health.5 Up to 79% of all firms offer resources such as an EAP.6 Asking for a mental health day off in a culture like that feels less risky.
Craft What You’re Going to Say
Once you’re clear on your company’s time-off policy, your employment rights, and the culture you work in, you can figure out how best to ask for time off to address your mental health needs, including family member issues. For example, your company may not require you to state why you’re taking a day off. If that’s the case, don’t.
Here are a few examples of what you could say:
- “I’d like to take tomorrow off to deal with a personal issue.”
- “I need to take next Tuesday off for PTO.”
- “I’ve got an appointment Friday and will need to take the afternoon off.”
- “I’ll be out tomorrow to handle a health issue with my mom.”
- “I can’t take the swing shift because my daughter has an appointment that day.”
Notice that none of these examples discloses specifically what the time off is for. It’s really none of your employers’ business to know when you’re seeing a therapist for an anxiety disorder, or that you’re taking your child in for a behavioral assessment.
Submit Your Request Via Company Time Off Request Form or Email
Companies with a more formal time-off request policy may require that you follow a process. It may be a paper PTO request form that your manager needs to approve, or it may be an electronic request you submit through your company’s HR system.
Note that your company time off request system may not require you to provide any details other than the date, time, and kind of time off you’re requesting, i.e., sick leave or vacation.
However, emergencies happen. A person experiencing a psychological crisis may need to be checked into a mental health facility for observation. Providing your employer with advanced notice isn’t always an option. Many company policies allow for that.
It’s possible you or a family member can simply call, text, or email the firm to let them know you’ll be out due to a “health emergency.”
Email Template to Ask Your Boss for a Mental Health Day Off
What’s helpful to know is that you’ll rarely need to provide excruciating detail in your time off request when you ask for a mental health day off from work. That’s because your medical (and mental health) privacy is protected by federal law.
Here are three email templates you could use (copy and paste the text below into an email message and customize it with your manager’s name and your signature):
I’d like to use one of my five remaining sick days next Friday. Please let me know if you have any concerns.
I am requesting tomorrow off work as I need to take care of an urgent personal health issue. Please let me know if you will approve this as a paid sick day.
|Company Format||Dear ___,|
Per our company PTO policy, I am giving you 3-days advanced notice that I will need <date/time> off.
Deflecting Employer’s Well-intentioned Questions
While you have a right to protect your medical and health data privacy, including your mental health condition, it’s not uncommon for an employer to ask for more detail. That can get dicey. Consider these responses as a way to protect yourself and deflect your employer’s questions.
You can respond by saying:
- “It’s personal. I’d rather not go into details on the health issue I’m dealing with.”
- “I’d prefer not to provide further details per my privacy rights under HIPAA.”
- “To protect my family’s privacy, I’d like to leave the sick leave reason blank.”
- “According to (state) sick leave law, I’m not required to provide you that information.”
- “Unless answering is required by law, I respectfully decline to elaborate.”
In rare cases, an uninformed employer may require written proof or a doctor’s note. If that’s the company policy, you can ask your doctor to write that they recommend you take time off for health-related reasons. No diagnosis or insurance code is required. (You may wish to inform your employer that requesting a doctor’s note is not a best practice as it exposes the company to potential HIPAA law violations.)
What Are the Laws Regarding Taking a Mental Health Day?
The federal government provides employees with protections, such as health information privacy through the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), equal opportunity laws through the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), and anti-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Further, the Department of Labor (DOL) provides guidance and support for mental health in the workplace, acknowledging that one in five workers experience mental health issues.7 A dozen US states have added paid and unpaid sick leave laws, allowing employees to take time off for health (and mental health) needs affecting themselves and their families.
The most relevant of these laws are described below:
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) provides protections for those with mental health issues just as it does for people with physical health issues. What this means for those taking a mental health day off is that your employer doesn’t have a right to know the details of your condition.
For instance, your employer can’t call up your therapist to find out what’s going on, such as what you’re being treated for or what legally prescribed medications you’re taking (exclusions may apply for safety reasons, such as in the transportation industry). Your health information, including your mental health status, remains private unless you yourself choose to share it.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) governs topics like minimum wage and child labor laws. It prevents discrimination against those with mental health issues, such as illegally docking a worker’s pay if they need to take a 15-minute mental-health break.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides employer regulations to ensure all employees are treated equally. That means your employer can’t give a co-worker time off for surgery without allowing you an equal amount of time off for your mental health needs. They also can’t discriminate against you due to a non-work-related issue, such as having a family member affected by mental health.
However, many EEOC regulations aren’t enforced for smaller employers. You may have a right not to be discriminated against for taking a mental health day off, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to protect that right in a smaller firm.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects workers with health, mental health, and perceived disabilities. In the workplace, that means employers can’t discriminate against you (fire, discipline, demote) due to your disclosure of a mental health issue. Further, you have the right to request a reasonable accommodation to allow you to do your job in spite of your mental health concerns.
Examples of reasonable time off accommodations that a person with a mental health disorder may request of their employer are:
- Stress-reducing acupuncture requiring you to leave early one day a week
- One day off a month to participate in an anger management group
- Unpaid time off work if you’re unable to control your emotions that day
- A two-day weekend following any week you’re required to work overtime
- Periodic (random) time off requests when your anxiety is out of control
- PTO to acclimate to new medications that make you agitated or sleepy
The Office of Disability Employment Policy provides additional reasonable accommodation examples. Keep in mind that the ADA, like HIPAA and other labor laws, may not cover your time off for mental health needs if you work for a smaller employer. That’s why it’s crucial to look both at the law and your company policies, as documented in the employer handbook. In the absence of a legal statute, most courts will require your employer to abide by any policies they’ve documented in their employee handbook.
The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) lets you take time off (up to four months if you meet the requirements) unpaid from work to deal with most kinds of family medical and health issues, including mental health. For example, under FMLA, you would be able to care for yourself or a family member dealing with serious mental health concerns, like a new diagnosis of bipolar disorder, or supporting your child’s recovery after a suicide attempt.
But most individuals dealing with common mental health disorders don’t need to take months off at a time. For issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), ongoing therapy for phobias, or regular appointments to deal with depression or anxiety, it may be more appropriate to request intermittent FMLA.
Perhaps your disorder requires you to see a provider daily, or your therapist suggests you participate in group activities one day a week. Those mental health days can be requested through your employer’s FMLA program. In fact, time off for “employee episodic conditions” is the most common type of FMLA leave requested.8
The only catch is that FMLA isn’t required of employers with fewer than 50 employees. FMLA time off is not required to be paid and there are a few other rules too, such as you have to work for the firm at least a year and be full time with at least 1,250 work hours.
Further, your employer can require you to follow their FMLA leave request policy and procedures. Failure to do so could void your FMLA benefit. If you wish to use this program, it’s best to talk to someone in human resources at your company to understand the process, forms, and approvals needed to take advantage of your FMLA options.
State & Local Sick Leave Laws
Sick leave time off (paid or unpaid) is not mandated at the federal level. It’s a decision left up to the employer or the state.
Each year, additional US states join the trend to add paid and unpaid sick leave laws to the books. Each state’s law varies slightly in terms of what it covers. For example, most state sick leave laws mandate paid time off as needed for family members’ physical and mental health issues. Some cover time off needed due to domestic violence concerns.
At the time of this article, the following 12 states require employers to provide sick leave to employees working for employers in their state:9
States That Mandate Employers Provide Sick Leave Time Off
Mental health time off is a standard benefit within mandated sick leave laws in these states. And, some larger urban areas like San Francisco, New York, and Dallas, require local employers to provide even more generous sick leave benefits than the state itself mandates.10
However, in addition to smaller employers not being required to comply with some federal employment laws, company thresholds and rules vary by state. For example, in Connecticut, firms with 50 or more workers must provide paid sick leave. In Oregon, employers with as few as 10 employees must comply.
If you’re working for a small company, or live in a state with no or limited sick leave protections, you may not have any legal right to paid or unpaid time off for mental health issues.
What you can do instead, is abide by your company’s time-off policy, or consider asking your boss for a mental health day off unpaid. Follow your company policy to protect yourself so that time taken off for any purpose, including a mental health day off, doesn’t result in disciplinary action up to and including your job loss.