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Ben Nadel at NCDevCon 2011 (Raleigh, NC) with: Mary Jo Sminkey
Ben Nadel at NCDevCon 2011 (Raleigh, NC) with: Mary Jo Sminkey ( @mjsminkey )

How I Take A "Mental Health Day" At Work

Published in , Comments (2)

On a recent episode of the JS Party podcast, Suz Hinton, Feross Aboukhadijeh, and Emma Wedekind had an open and honest conversation about workplace burn-out. The workplace is an interesting beast. Sometimes, it can grind me down to a soulless nub; and, other times, the workplace is so exhilarating that I can't wait for the weekend to end so I can get back to solving the really fun and fulfilling problems. But, much of the time, it's somewhere in between the two extremes. Inspired by the JS Party panel, I wanted to share one strategy that I use to help keep my compass pointed towards the thrilling end of the spectrum: taking a "mental health day" at work.

Westley in the Pit of Despair, as seen in the Princess Bride.

For me personally, taking time off from work has never solved the problem of burnout. And that's because, it's not the work that pushes me into the pit of despair - it's the lack of agency: the inability to align my daily actions with my own, internal set of principles and priorities.

When I start to feel this happening, I stop the work that I'm doing and I take a day or two and work only on tasks that I've created for myself. Now, to be clear, I'm still at work; and, I'm still working on "work stuff"; but, the work that I'm doing is 100% self-directed.

I call this day (or two) a "palette cleanser". And, it tends to grant me the respite that I need to recharge my mental batteries and push off any oncoming burnout.

In order to make these "mental health days" most effective, I find it necessary to create a parallel set of JIRA tickets that addresses issues that no one asked me to address. These are what I call the "see something, say something" tickets - the issues that affect the system - and ultimately the User Experience (UX); but, that are not on the Product or Engineering road map.

Doing this allows me to exert control and feel like I have agency; and, I truly believe that this technique also makes the product better. In my mind, this strategy is a win-win for the company. I increase my longevity; and, I'm able to move the product forward in ways that no one else was doing.

Sprinkling A Little Self-Actualization Into Every Work Day

Instead of waiting for that feeling of impending doom - and then inserting a "mental health day" - I find that I can often "top off" my internal reserves by sprinkling a little self-actualization into every work day. What I mean by this is that, instead of periodically taking an entire day or two to work on my "see something, say something" tasks, I can get similar results if I do a small one every day; or every couple of days.

With this approach, the frequent cadence of self-direction can act as an ongoing buffer to the other, more deleterious forces at work. Also, the smaller tasks tend to raise fewer managerial red-flags since they don't require as much time.

I Don't Ask For Permission To Not Burnout

Perhaps the most important part of this mental health strategy is that I don't ask for permission. I just do it. Obviously, I take into account the urgency of work-related matters; and, I'm certainly not flippant about deadlines. But, when I feel like I need a "break", and work isn't on fire, I just switch modes and take a mental health day.

And, I don't hide what I am doing. In fact, I can usually talk passionately about my "see something, say something" tasks in our daily stand-up. And, because it's all "work related", it's hard for anyone to argue against my choices. But, because those choices are self-directed - because it is me "doing me" - it energizes me and helps get my head in the right place.

My old boss, Steve Grushcow, used to tell me, "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon". I often think back to this advice in order to retain perspective. A winning strategy isn't an all-out sprint towards every single deadline, leaving nothing in the tank. A winning strategy is figuring out how I can keep at this for the next 40-years. And, the best way that I can do that (currently) is to build "mental health days" into my ongoing work schedule.

Reader Comments


It's sort of like an "intrinsic motivation cleanse". As your current manager, I whole-heartedly support this approach. :)

But so here's the thing: our one-on-one is not just a chance for us to catch up and connect. It's largely an opportunity to align personal interests with organizational needs. Think of it as pushing the Venn diagram of "stuff we have to do" and "stuff you want to do" closer to being a circle. It of course never will be a circle, but we can pick off stuff at the edges.

You mention stuff you want to do and I try to find a way to make that fit with our team strategy (which it often does).

I mention stuff that we have to do and you maybe find parts of it, or methods of implementation that you find appealing, injecting the crucial element of intrinsic motivation into your work.

Sometimes it takes many iterations of looking at the same piece of work to find the part that's appealing to you, but it's so worth it.

If I can pick off even one thing a month and, by reframing it or recasting it to align with what you want to do, get you to look forward to doing it, and including it in one of these mental-health days, I can make a huge compounding difference to the company and to your wellbeing.



This in particular is very helpful:

I mention stuff that we have to do and you maybe find parts of it, or methods of implementation that you find appealing, injecting the crucial element of intrinsic motivation into your work.

In that I do think that there are little gems in most of the work that we do. The trick is figuring out what those are, perhaps collaboratively. But, it makes a huge difference.

I believe in love. I believe in compassion. I believe in human rights. I believe that we can afford to give more of these gifts to the world around us because it costs us nothing to be decent and kind and understanding. And, I want you to know that when you land on this site, you are accepted for who you are, no matter how you identify, what truths you live, or whatever kind of goofy shit makes you feel alive! Rock on with your bad self!
Ben Nadel