How to Talk About Taking Time Off for Mental Health

By Kai Conibear,
updated on Mar 15, 2020

How to Talk About Taking Time Off for Mental Health

Taking time off for our mental health is often essential, but many of us dread explaining why we’re taking time away

Often it’s not until we’re taking time off to look after our mental health that we realise how much small talk revolves around work. It’s seen as a universal icebreaker, from people we know well to those we’ve just met. We might be at a party (yes, you can be unwell and still go to parties), a family gathering, or just out for a coffee with a friend.

While it can feel overwhelming to socialise when we’re unwell, it’s important as it stops us from isolating ourselves, and these are the people that can support us, and help carry us through. So to then be presented with the “how’s work” question can sometimes feel like too much to deal with.

As innocent as the intention, it can be a loaded question. I’ve been asked this when I’ve been ill with mental health problems, and that feeling of dread will begin to creep over me. I’ll feel flustered and anxious, with a tightness in my chest. I’ve found myself making excuses, or trying to avoid the question completely. But rather than feeling shame, or hiding, here are four important points to remember when we’re having these conversations.

1. Be honest

Sounds difficult right? It doesn’t have to be. The way we phrase our responses can make everyone who is a part of the conversation feel at ease. Think about the person or people you’re talking to. How can they relate to your situation? Do they know us well or are they acquaintances? There are simple phrases that work well in these situations:

  • “I’m taking some time out for my mental health.”
  • “I’m making my health a priority.”
  • “I need time to refocus so I can do my best at work when I go back.”
  • “I was feeling stressed and near burnout, and needed some time off to recharge.”

Depending on the person, we can figure out how much detail we want to divulge. If you feel you can be completely honest, do it! The majority of people will care and ask how they can help.

2. Lose the shame

We often find ourselves apologising for being mentally unwell. We do it because of shame and guilt, but thinking differently about why we’re off can make our conversations easier. Ask yourself: “How likely is it someone will think less of me? I’ve made a call about my health and I needed to take time off.” Feeling ashamed won’t help us feel better, it will sabotage our efforts to get back to work. If someone does shame us for being unwell, they need to be educated; it is a fault with them, not us.

3. Tell them you’re taking care of yourself

Having time out from work means you’re taking your health seriously. It might be you’ve stopped yourself from reaching burnout. Or you may have reached burnout, and had the presence of mind to realise that you needed a break. Everyone can relate to these feelings to an extent. If it’s an ongoing, long-term illness then it shows that we know ourselves well, and taking care of ourselves should be praised. We’ve taken responsibility for our health, which shows maturity. We should be proud that we’re not trying to work through an illness, but instead are making our health a priority.

4. Remember work doesn’t define you

Although work is an important part of many people’s lives, it doesn’t have to define us. There are so many more things that are a part of us – our hobbies, passions, and personality to name a few. When we really think about all the topics we’re interested in, the possibilities for a conversation are endless. Shifting a conversation to a topic that is important to us can make socialising less stressful to deal with. It can also help us find purpose outside of work. It can help us realise that our identity matters just as much as our career.

For more information on work-related stress visit counselling-directory.org.uk

By Kai Conibear

Kai Conibear is a writer and mental health advocate. His first book, ‘Living at the Speed of Light’, about bipolar disorder, is out now.'

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