• Stress and guilt about taking time off work can prevent you from reaping the mental health benefits of vacation days.
  • You can overcome these negative feelings by identifying your cognitive distortions, by reminding yourself that breaks are necessary, and by doing what makes you uncomfortable (desensitization).
  • Follow these steps, and you can recharge your batteries guilt-free.

“I’m going to take Monday off,” you tell your partner with confidence. “I’m overdue for a mental health day.” The next morning, you walk into the office and open your inbox to draft an email to your manager:

Good morning! I’m writing to let you know that I’ll be taking PTO on Monday.

You stare at your computer screen. Your cursor blinks about 10 times before you move the drafted email to trash. You sigh in defeat and get to work.

Can you relate? Have you ever wanted to take a day off—and been one click away from doing just that—but failed to follow through? If the answer is yes, you’re probably familiar with the guilt and stress that many people experience when they take a day off of work. This guilt and stress are crippling. In fact, they defeat the purpose of taking a day off, as the day gets tainted by the stress that you feel about not being at work—and what was meant to be a vacation day or a mental health day is anything but relaxing. So, you decide not to take the day off after all.

Why do you feel guilty about taking time off work? And how can you fix this?

Should I Feel Guilty for Taking a Mental Health Day? What Causes the Guilt and Stress?

While we might joke on occasion about winning the lottery and never returning to our jobs, we’ve accepted work as a normal part of life. We forget, though, that going to work isn’t just normal—it’s essential to surviving.

“I think the stress that many of us experience when we take a day off of work is easiest to understand when we first recognize that stress is a survival mechanism,” explains Emily Simonian, a Licensed and Marriage Family Therapist and Head of Learning at Thriveworks. She goes on to say that many of us “existentially feel that going to work every day ultimately equates to survival, mentally and physically. So, if we have to miss a day or a few days of work, even for something wonderful like a vacation, we instinctively experience stress or just underneath it, fear.”

Think about your perceived standing or status at work. Are you viewed as a leader? Does your manager think you’re doing a good job? Are you behind on work or ahead of the curve? Reflecting on these questions can reveal what work-related fears might be holding you back and help to answer our question: Why can’t we take a day off of work without feeling guilty or stressed about it? Simonian lists a few of these common work-related fears:

  • Fear of falling behind
  • Fear of becoming or being viewed as less than our coworkers
  • Fear of becoming less relevant or less valued at work

The cherry on top is that “many of us attach our sense of identity to work as well,” says Simonian. “So, we perceive that there’s a lot at stake psychologically if we feel that we are falling short or underperforming at work.”

Resolving Difficult Feelings: How to Feel Better About Taking Your Well-Deserved Break

Say it with me: We all deserve to take a day off. Now, that probably isn’t enough to rid you of your stress and guilt. But we think the following tips will help:

1. Recognize the root of your stress.

First, recognize and remember where your stress stems from. “One way of overcoming this roadblock is to remember that you’re feeling stressed because you care about your work—and that’s a good thing!” says Simonian. She recommends practicing positive self-talk like: “I feel stressed about taking days off but I know that’s because I take such pride in my job.” This will challenge those feelings of guilt. “After all, pride is the antidote to guilt,” she says.

Simonian notes another common thinking error (aka cognitive distortion): “Because we fear falling behind at work or being viewed as ‘less than,’ we perceive taking time off as something threatening.” To challenge and reframe this kind of thinking, you can tell yourself the following: 

  • “Taking time off is necessary and will help me do my job well.”
  • “There’s a reason why vacation days are part of work culture. Taking time off is more than just encouraged, it’s expected.
  • “I know I’m valued at work because […]. Taking time off won’t change that.”

2. Remind yourself that taking a break is necessary.

Also, remind yourself that we all need to take a break to keep our mental, emotional, and physical well-being intact. “Remember that taking a break once in a while is necessary,” says Simonian. “That’s why vacation and sick days are a part of every work culture! Think about it this way: Taking time off might ultimately move you forward in your career because you’ll return to the office fresh, well-rested, and mentally better than ever after stepping away from time to time.”

Rest and relaxation also confer a ton of cognitive benefits like increased productivity and enhanced executive functions (attention, planning, prioritization, time-management, organization, and emotional regulation). Simonian also cites research showing that vacations, especially to out-of-the-ordinary environments, bestow solid brain benefits like the following:

  • Increased creativity, problem-solving, and original ideas
  • Better communication skills
  • Being able to perform tasks more quickly/efficiently

So all those coworkers who constantly work late and never take time off may actually be shortchanging the company! Your plane ticket to an exotic locale might benefit your whole team, not just you.  

3. Rip off the band-aid: Take a day off.

Finally, just do it—commit to taking a day off and follow through. “The best way to move through feelings of guilt and stress about taking a day off…is to take a day off!” says Simonian. “We call this desensitization—becoming more comfortable with something that makes you uncomfortable. Allow yourself to take a mental health day and read for fun, take a walk, or take a nap—whatever fills you up.” Now, combine these three tips into one: “Practice positive self-talk while you do this and remind yourself that taking a break is not only okay, but it’s making you better at your job,” Simonian concludes.

If you’re overdue for a day off, it’s time to give in. Draft that email and be sure to press send this time. If you still struggle to do so, walk through the above steps again: 1) Remember where this stress and guilt come from; 2) remind yourself that taking a break is a must, and doing so will benefit your career in the long-run; and 3) make that commitment and investment in yourself.