We must normalize mental-health days

This image is currently not available
Mark Weber / Op-Art

Where’s the joy?

The recent holidays were not a vacation for so many but a scramble for tests. The omicron variant had us all preoccupied in one way or another, with delays and cancellations, compounding stress to our already deep-seated convictions that divided us at the dinner table or in the aisle of the planes. Another COVID-19 wave, another COVID breakpoint, more pandemic fatigue, more breakthroughs — both positive and negative

We need a do-over, or some makeup time. 

The U.S. is one of the few countries that does not mandate time off. Places like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offer unlimited time off, which is not the same. Others have implemented it, like HubSpot going from Global Days to an entire Global Week of Rest in 2021. Not all companies are created equal. 

One survey found many tabled their paid time off. Moreover, around half of Americans said they plan to work on vacation or at least check email, not completely plugging off. While vacation is not affordable for all, there is a cost for not providing paid time off: staffing shortages via the The Great Resignation, or a Great Reset. 

In the last two years, we’re seeing PTSD-like symptoms such as anger, anxiety and depression exacerbated from this global stressor. Students at the University of Washington experienced a wide swath of effects (less if they confronted COVID/virtual challenges by taking action). One college teacher friend in New York tells me even the “smart and good students” are struggling. It’s a scramble fraught with missed deadlines, canceled study abroads and surprise migraines once again. 

For the future of study and work, schools and employers must lead with the continuation of even more empathy and compassion — especially for those who won’t or can’t take it upon themselves to heal from the collective trauma: loss of normalcy, life and lifestyle. 

Looking back, 2021 was the hardest, most depressing and anxiety-inducing year of my life. Last summer, at the height of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I was encouraged to take a paid week off. Still, my wise Gen Z therapist told me that I need to take some real time off this year.

When we can be “on” from anywhere these days, and Americans only have less of vacation on average than Europeans do, it seems nearly impossible to have the true freedom of vacation. In an experiment, some Americans cited initial resistance and fear of taking off one day in a week, but participants ultimately reported better work-life balance as well as pride in their work — suggesting more hours do not correlate to better work. 

As such, right before Christmas, I noticed my thoughts were circling much more and out of control than usual. I gathered the courage to tell my supervisor I needed to take a mental-health day (note: not a sick day). I needed to get off the roller coaster ride of COVID fatigue and COVID anxiety. My supervisor was not only amenable but supportive. 

But it’s not the norm. We must normalize mental-health days. 

In the new year, I finally gave myself a week. It wasn’t easy to slow down, but there was one night where I slept 15 hours as it rained outside. I’m finding myself emerging again. 

There is no prize for powering through or coming into work at less than 100%. The world does not end from not answering emails. Let’s cut each other some Slack as we’re still hanging by a thread, or holding onto it for dear life. 

A happier new year will be a more well rested one. 

Ko Im: is a personal essayist and strategist based in Seattle. She holds certifications in mental health and meditation.