Mental Illness Deserves A Sick Day Just Like A Physical Illness

Mental Illness Deserves A Sick Day Just Like A Physical Illness

What's great about America is that we've got a highly productive workforce that grinds like no other. We invent some of the greatest products and consistently build some of the largest companies in the world. But we are also increasingly suffering from mental illness. As a result, more of us need to take mental sick days.

What's sad about America is that we're working ourselves to an early death. We pride ourselves on working double-digit work hours a day. We pack our schedules to the brim and never give ourselves a break. As a result, our mental health suffers.

I'm guilty of adopting the “always be grinding” mentality because I landed a dream job in New York City after college and then migrated to San Francisco, another hyper-competitive city. I didn't want to take my luck for granted, so I tended to constantly push myself to the limit.

Even after I left full-time work in 2012 after 13 years of 60-80-hour work weeks, I still wanted to keep the intensity up with my writing on Financial Samurai. I was free to kick back and do whatever thanks to passive income, but I refused to live a life of leisure after the first six months of freedom.

Unnecessary self-imposed pressures are why so many of us aren't as happy as we should be. As soon as I let go of my perennial goals of outperforming the S&P and reaching ever higher website growth, I started to feel happier.

Accept Your Mental Illness

Nobody bats an eye if you tell them you're planning on taking several days off because you've come down with the flu, COVID, or some nasty bacteria. Falling physically ill is normal, especially if you've got little ones running around.

But nobody comes out and admits they have a mental illness that's keeping them down. Yet I argue we all experience some sort of mental illness at some point in our lives.

I come down with mental fatigue at least once a year. Most recently, I experienced an emptiness inside after publishing my book and making the Wall Street Journal best seller list. How crazy is that? But after 2 1/2 years of trying so hard, I felt this deep sorrow that this was as good as things were going to get.

Sometimes I get depressed about how unfair life is. My depression always focuses on why some people have so much opportunity, while other people have so little opportunity.

I go through a guilt phase where I often ask, why me? During this time period, I have no desire to hang out with anyone. I start thinking wild ideas like relocating to Virginia over Hawaii because I need a certain amount of suffering to feel more worthy.

A Traumatic Event Experienced While Young

While living in Malaysia, one of my friends died in a car accident at age 15. He lost control and rammed into a tree off the highway. Yes, he legally wasn't allowed to drive, but we were irreverent. The passenger in the front seat didn't survive either.

We were skateboard buddies from different schools who would hang out over the weekend. He was one of the coolest kids around and I wanted to go out with him to the club that night, but he ignored me because I was only 13.

The next day, I called Mark to ask whether he wanted to hang out. I will always remember his mother's voice telling me he had passed away.

I have a degree of survivor's guilt. I've learned that one of the best ways of overcoming this mental condition is to journal my thoughts and be useful to others. Over the years, no other activity has helped me more to overcome this mental affliction.

The reason why I started Financial Samurai in July 2009 was due to extreme anxiety and fear that I was going to lose everything I spent 10 years building up until the financial crisis.

I had nightmares of having to go back to work flipping burgers at McDonald's for a tyrant manager. As a result, perhaps I'm more sensitive to financial loss than the average person.

Through my posts and now through the Financial Samurai Forum, I've found a supportive community that acts as my supplemental mental health care system. Over the years, so many folks have reached out to share similar thoughts.

Take Sick Days For Your Mental Health

When I advised employees to take sick days instead of PTO in my post, Using Vacation Days Before A Severance Negotiation, I expected some readers to question my advice given our “always be grinding” society.

Here are a couple responses of disapproval,

Your suggestion of using sick days in lieu of vacation days is a gray area. Some companies have policies which theoretically forbid that. Or, if you use a certain amount of sick days in a row (say 3 or more) you have to get a doctors note. Personally, I wouldn't want to be relaxing on the beach in Hawaii having to call my boss each day pretending to be sick.

Taking a sick day when I am not sick? Sorry, my moral code won’t let me go there. A day’s pay used to be worth a couple of grand, that is significant, but the price of my word, that is nonnegotiable, or priceless, if it is a Visa commercial. And if the company is being evil, well, that’s on them, I’m fine with fighting but I only fight fair regardless of how someone else fights. What anyone else does, not my problem, what I do, I have to live with that guy.

To a manager or CEO, these responses are music to their ears. Their goal is to have employees be max loyal to the firm, while they enrich themselves with max reward.

What the commenters don't recognize is the importance of taking sick days to improve one's mental health. Their automatic assumption is that sick days are only for physical illnesses, which is a big blind spot.

Taking Breaks Is Healthy

I used to work at a firm that allowed a three-month sabbatical for every five years of work. Unfortunately, no manager ever took a sabbatical, which meant that nobody else took a sabbatical out of fear of getting a crap bonus or worse.

But after my 8th year at the firm, I decided to take a step towards living a more balanced life by taking all my vacation days. For the last three years at my old firm, I took six weeks off a year and loved it.

I stopped giving a crap about what others thought. Logically, more people are practicing quiet quitting by setting up boundaries from work. by doing just 100%, more workers can prevent burning out.

Interestingly, while I took six weeks off a year, my production improved. Unfortunately, my firm didn't properly compensate me for my production. But instead of complaining, I negotiated a severance.

Types Of Mental Illnesses

Perhaps you still have doubts about how common mental illness really is. Well here is an infographic that puts together many mental health issues. I've written most of them out since there are so many and the graph is so small.

Types Of Anxiety

  • Agora
  • PTSD
  • OCD
  • Acute Stress Disorder
  • Adjustment Disorder
  • Substance Induced
  • Separation Anxiety
  • Selective Mutism
  • Caffeine Induced
  • Androphobia (fear of men)
  • Panic
  • Social
  • Generalized

How To Reduce Anxiety

The pandemic increased the feeling of anxiety for many of us. Life insurance demand went up in 2020 and 2021 to record-highs. Unfortunately, so did life insurance death benefit payouts.

To help reduce your anxiety, I highly recommend getting an affordable term life insurance policy, especially if you have kids. Once I got a new affordable life insurance policy with no medical exam, my anxiety over death went away. Creating a death file with all my usernames and passwords to share with my wife also helped reduce anxiety.

The easiest way to get free, real life insurance quotes is with PolicyGenius. Both my wife and I have used PolicyGenius to get new affordable policies during the pandemic.

How to reduce anxiety and mental illness

Schizophrenia Types

  • Schizoaffective
  • Paranoid
  • Brief Psychotic
  • Schizophrenium
  • Delusional
  • Shared Psychotic
  • Disorganized/ Hebephrenia
  • Cenesthopathic

Eating Disorders Types

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge Eating
  • Eating Disorder Not Other Specified (EDNOS)
  • Atypical
  • Purging
  • Night/Nocturnal
  • Orthorexia
  • Pica

Types Of Self Harm

  • Cutting
  • Carving
  • Using Objects (kicking or punching a wall)
  • Scratching
  • Picking
  • Ripping Skin off
  • Promiscuity
  • Burning
  • Hair Pulling
  • Rubbing objects on the skin
  • Misusing or Abusing Alcohol or drugs
  • Eating Disorders
  • Suicide Attempt
  • Law Breaking
  • Poisoning with toxic chemicals
  • Excessive exercise
  • Multiple piercings and/or tattoos
  • Overspending money

ADD/ADHD Types

  • Inattentive
  • Hyperactive-Impulsive
  • Classic ADD
  • Overfocused ADD
  • Temporal Lobe ADD
  • Limbic ADD
  • Ring of Fire ADD
  • Anxious ADD

Types of Addiction

  • Alcoholism
  • Drugs
  • Nicotine
  • Food
  • Gambling
  • Internet
  • Sexual
  • Shopping
  • Work
  • Video Games
  • Plastic Surgery
  • OTC Medications
  • Arson
  • People Pleasing
  • Perfectionism

Depending on your degree of mental illness, I urge everyone to seek professional help for their mental health issues on top of taking sick days. Take advantage of experts in their field who have treated others with your same illness.

There's also the growing feeling of loneliness that is negatively affecting millions of people as well. This loneliness we feel is taking years away from our lifespans.

Sick Days Are Built Into Your Compensation Package

Not utilizing your sick days or PTO or not taking unemployment benefits is foolish because they are part of your compensation package. Your employer pays unemployment insurance, which directly affects your compensation.

Don't be a proud ignoramus like me who only took maybe 15 sick days after 11 years of service, when I was allotted 77 sick days. Definitely don't be one of those people who hoard their PTO and actually lose some of their days because they exceeded the carryover limit.

Take your sick days, take your vacation days, use short-term disability and long-term disability when needed. You don't feel bad about your employer subsidizing most of your healthcare costs. So why should you feel bad about taking sick days?

If your employer gets around the unpaid PTO issue by offering unlimited PTO, your mission is to take more PTO, especially if you are planning to do something else. Test the word “unlimited.” So long as you're hitting your performance metrics, you should be fine.

We're in a tight labor market. The very least you can do is take advantage of all your benefits. If you feel work is too crush, than practice quiet quitting to protect your mental health.

And for goodness sake, let's all accept that mental illness affects us all in some way. Some of us will need more help than others.

Once you embrace the ubiquity of mental illness, you will develop more empathy for those whom you find disagreeable. Every time someone writes a nasty comment on Financial Samurai or attacks me online, I remind myself their attacks are a reflection of their current state of mind.

Peace and love!

Related posts:

The Health Benefits Of Retiring Early Are Priceless

Using The Family Medical Leave Act To Negotiate A Severance

The Book That Changed My Life And Made Me Rich Again

A Strong Mind: Your Secret Weapon

If You Want To Be Naturally Nicer, Get Richer

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Readers, why doesn't society do a better job at recognizing mental illnesses? Why do some people feel embarrassed or conflicted about taking sick days or PTO? Have people been conditioned this badly to not recognize their benefits?

33 thoughts on “Mental Illness Deserves A Sick Day Just Like A Physical Illness”

  1. Sam, do you have a “template” for your ‘mental health day’?

    Individual cases vary, but I’m curious if folks enjoy some structure (e.g. still wake up early, do some fitness, extra time with family, extra time meditating alone, spa day, tennis, etc.) OR do you just wing it and treat it as a break from the stress of having structure.

  2. Simple Money Man

    Society doesn’t do a better job because mental health issues are taboo in our society and in many cultures. Things are changing, but slowly and depend on your line of work. And as people move further into their careers, they look for an organization that provides a good work-life balance. Some organizations even provide mental health counseling as part of their benefits.

  3. ha – i was one of the commenters from that original article. Honored to be featured in an FS post, but feel the need to clarify. I never said that people shouldn’t take sick days for mental health reasons. I was only referring to taking sick days instead of vacation days (the beach vacation example you gave in the article). And I totally agree you should always strive to take all your vacation and sick days each year. I just prefer not to use my sick days when I’m travelling somewhere.

  4. Lately I’ve been noticing that what makes someone really exceptional lawyer, investment banker or doctor, or even a great accumulator of wealth, may be this huge amount of anxiety that we carry around with us that drives us to work extra hard or be extra frugal so that we don’t make any avoidable mistakes. Maybe I’m wrong, but I almost think that to be a high achiever is to be a very anxious person. I’ve observed some of the brightest, hardest working people I started working with burn out pretty quickly. The older you get the more you see people’s lives ruined by mental health problems that seem almost endemic to certain professions. You also get to see people rebound and do something totally different and personally meaningful and manage their mental health pretty well.

  5. While I agree that taking a sick day is great and all, and I have done it when I had sick days, many people don’t have them anymore. Many companies (I have seen up to 33% in statistics) only have PTO. They have taken sick time, and vacation time and combined it into the same category. What was done during this transition was they took the 15 days of Vacation, and 5 days of Sick, and combined them to make 17 days of PTO. The stats bear this out. So what the companies have done is effectively taken time off away from you.

    From a company perspective, managers don’t have to manage two buckets of time off, don’t have to worry as much about people calling off (less administration for them), and they have technically less time out of their “butt in seat” jobs. From the employee perspective, they have less time off, have to bank time (if that is even allowed) for physical or mental illness, and usually have to stress based on the earning and banking policies.

    I will give an example. I got 15 days of PTO in 2016. It sucked, and I would have negotiated more had I gotten the right information when I was doing my negotiation (the recruiter stated I had PTO and sick time, but no I did not, and I was on vacation while doing my negotiation). Anyways, so I am generally healthy and in 2016 I had planned a vacation around Christmas time. In August my appendix burst on a Sunday and I was required to miss a day of work on Monday. I fought through it and made it to the office the rest of the week. However because I missed that one day, I had to cancel my vacation at Christmas, as I didn’t have enough time off. The company had a use it or lose it policy for PTO, so no banking.

  6. Sam,

    This article is so spot on. Unfortunately, I don’t think too many employers would be onboard with this. Employees are not human, just numbers used to make other numbers (I think this is part of–PART of–why employees jump from job to job every few years rather than staying with a company for decades). Too many employers shame their staff from using their sick days for PHYSICAL ailments, let alone the need to de-stress for the sake of their long term mental health.

    I’ll never forget taking a sick day because I had laryngitis and was coughing up bodily fluids I didn’t know existed. I only took one day because the day after I had a sales appointment with a customer (and she no-showed). Because it was a day that a couple higher ups came to visit (district manager and regional president), my manager was shocked that I wasn’t there. According to him, “Some days you just have to crawl.”

    There was always a level of guilt that I had when taking sick days. Mainly because, in a branch environment, others would have to pick up the slack. But also because many of the managers I had instilled that guilt and pressure onto us. I remember numerous staff meetings where the manager would get on us for taking too many sick days, and I’d be sitting there trying to remember if anybody had taken more than one since the last meeting three months ago. I think my refusal to take sick time was part of the reason I was so stressed.

    Of course, now I can’t take any sick days as a contactor because my job doesn’t have them or PTO. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. Thankfully AML is less stressful than branch banking, so I don’t feel the need to.

    I hope more people see this article, Sam. America’s strict adherence to the “Protestant Work Ethic” is killing us, and none of the benefits (“We have the biggest cars and we build the largest companies”) come anywhere near the costs of this work culture. Japan has a term for this: “Karoshi”, which means “work until death” or something close to that. Let’s not karoshi ourselves.

    Sincerely,
    ARB–Angry Retail Banker

  7. Ms. Conviviality

    I think that if employers started promoting the use of sick days for mental health then there would be more absenteeism. I can only imagine the number of people who are “sick and tired” of their jobs on a regular basis.

    This isn’t to say that I don’t agree with taking sick leave for mental health. Wish I would have taken some needed time off when the love of my life died or the day I went to the courthouse to finalize our divorce. I remember sitting on the bathroom floor crying so hard that I felt like I couldn’t breath and yet I picked myself up and went back into work because I’m someone who follows the rules. I’ve come to realize that being mentally ill and coming to work doesn’t help my employer because I’m not productive so for the benefit of all I should stay home anytime I’m not feeling mentally or physically well.

  8. “Definitely don’t be one of those people who hoard their PTO and actually lose some of their days because they exceeded the carryover limit. ”

    Guilty as charged. I lost 9 hours of annual leave at the end of 2018 due to max carryover. In my defense, that 9 hours was allocated to Christmas Eve months in advance. However, at the last minute, my employer gave that day enterprise-wide and my leave balance was credited. Looking back, I suppose I may have been able to act quickly and re-allocated that leave around New Years, but I had a pile of work waiting for me come Jan 2nd.

    Guess who just scheduled 4 weeks of leave for 2019?

  9. We are literally killing our selves – the constant grind wears us down like no other and the constant push crushes our souls. I see it in myself and in my patients and more worrisome, my physician peers.

    What to do: take time for yourself – daily, monthly, yearly. Figure is out for yourself. I can’t do it for you.

    We are approaching FI within the next five years and will hopefully be relocating. I’m tired of living a life where my kids are growing up thinking it’s notmal for everyone to drive a Lexus, go to Whole Foods for dinner and stay on the beach for vacation. I’ve never been more content in my life then when I was fighting wildfires in the summers for college money. Flying around in helicopters, getting paid to camp out and work out, all while being surrounding by individuals whose main sense of self worth is hard work and getting the job done is a powerful experience. The military was a close second. Working on a ranch in high school a close third. I’m praying we can move to an area where my kids can learn what hard work is, how to treat all classes of people equally and truly make a difference. If they can do that, they will truly be rich.

  10. About 5 years ago my work got rid of sick days and gave everybody an extra week off. It removes any stigma from using them: I don’t need to tell anybody I’m feeling depressed or have a stomach ache, it’s just my time to take as needed/wanted.

    Anxiety/stress is the chief cause I’d want to take a mental health day, but that’s frequently caused by something important at work that prevents me from taking the time. So in cases like mine where I’m lucky enough to not have a serious mental illness, I try to develop ways of releasing stress, try to take regular time off, try to have things to look forward to so that I can stay as healthy/relaxed as I can when times get tough. Preventive measures rather than cures.

  11. I feel lucky to work for an employer (and a manager) that promotes a good work/life balance. Yes, there are high expectations of everyone to perform at a high level – but nobody bats an eye when someone takes time off for being sick. It’s never an issue if you have to work from home because your child is sick (or even if school is closed). I’m sure for the under-performers there might be more oversight but I’m happy with what I do and I think my company treats me well. Most days I can leave at 430 to pick up my 4 year old from school. Sure, that means once or twice a week I may log on in the evening for another 30-90 minutes but I think thats a worthwhile tradeoff (as opposed to getting home as he’s going to bed).

    When my wife was on bedrest due to a complicated pregnancy and then my twin daughters spent a month in the hospital I was told to work from home, accomplish what I can and to please pass on any extra work that gets to be too much.

    So while I do aim to use my vacation days and have no issue taking needed sick time – i do feel that in some way I owe it to the company to be available in the evenings or when i’m on vacation if i’m ever needed. They support me, i want to support them. Maybe i’m naive, but i dont think so

  12. Thank you for sharing this article. Speaking for myself, I believe I found the Finanical Independence movement due to my inability to maintain the stamina that is required of full time work. I could work through it in my 20s; the 30s became more challenging and now as I near 40, I am unbelievably grateful my 20 something self had this insight.
    I have generalized anxiety that often results in insomnia. I’ve gone on and off medication for it, given the pros and cons. That said, if work was optional, I could wake up when I was ready; this is my greatest gift to myself. At times I feel bad that I’m not as resilient as the average worker, so your sharing of this issue, allows others to be vulnerable & seek solutions. Thank you!

  13. I think it is hard for people to take PTO or sick days for a mental break because they don’t want to come across as seeming weak to the employer/manager. As employees, we want to demonstrate that we can handle anything thrown our way and not admit we can’t handle our current situation or circumstance. Otherwise, how else can we expect to expand our responsibilities or advance within the organization. Also, in general, I think employees are just hesitant to take time away from work. It’s like a back up QB coming into the game, out performs, and then takes the QB’s job. People are probably nervous about that as well.

  14. Hi Sam,

    I’ve been waiting for a post to ask you this question, and since my mental health correlates with the stock market I’ll ask you here. Do you still plan on lightening up on stocks now that the S@P is around 2800? I was planning on selling all my individual stocks and go 100 percent index funds when the pain was strongest toward the end of December. (For some reason I can handle a loss in index funds but when I’m picking individual stocks the losses are personal.) Now they have recovered, the pain is gone and the greed is back. I’m curious what you’re thinking.

    Thanks, Bill

    1. Yes, I’m totally de-risking at ~2800 and am so thankful my portfolio is back to 2018’s highs.

      It feels amazing to be back! And I’m happy to give up any performance for peace of mind.

      1. Today the S&P was effectively at 2800. So is it 2850. I actually moved my sell level up and bought PUTS.

        Are you buying PUTS or are you selling? Do you have sell orders in?

        1. No puts yet. Don’t want to deal with the stress of losing out on upside and losing money.

          My put is earning risk free 2.5% – 3.5% returns. It feels so good after this rally.

            1. Sounds good. I’m talking about my house fund. My retirement accounts are invested as normal as I don’t plan to touch them for 20 years.

              I like how you are shorting the market over the age of 65. What drives you to trade so much at your age? Why not just be satisfied with what you have and live off the certainty of your income?

  15. Grinding to get to a goal makes sense. Grinding because you enjoy it (even if it leaves you with guilt) makes sense. That said, I think most people are far more effective fresh and rested. All my athletic PRs have come after I took a week off at the end of a long hard grind.

    I think of health and fitness as a buffer that separates you from illness. It takes investing in your mental and physical wellbeing to maintain that buffer.

    There’s no glory in pacing for a 10K if you’re running an Ultra.

  16. Let’s not confuse true mental illness with needing a break from work for a day. Doing so trivializes a very serious problem. If you need a day off from work one day, take it. If you have a mental health challenge, go see someone who can help.

    1. It’s fascinating that you take a post about highlighting all the different types of mental illnesses and the need for empathy and acceptance and turn it into a negative.

      What is the mental illness that you currently experience? Maybe we can help you because having such a negative attitude can be very debilitating.

      I would use my sick days to find professional help. What is wrong with that?

  17. I was called into the office once while I was having high fever and on multiple medications (already WFH). Needless to say, that made me start a plan to leave that company. Work pressure to show up and perform can be so toxic. Remind yourself that your health is of utmost importance and once you get sick, you’ll regret sacrificing your health for that promotion or bonus. Mental health matters just as much as physical health. Even from employer’s perspective, I’m not sure why anyone would want a burnt out, tired employee to show up at work.

  18. Taking a few sick days off from work for mental illness sounds like a good idea, but is that enough? The person probably needs some help. Talk to the primary care physician and see what they say.
    I got major depression near the end of my career. The work was just too much. My doctor ordered 3 months off and I got short term disability pay. It was great. A few days wouldn’t have helped.
    Also, I hope you’re doing well now. Your finance, family, and life look perfect from outside. It’s hard to imagine feeling depressed or anything negative. Goes to show that anyone can be hit with mental illness. Best wishes.

    1. A few sick days is likely not enough. But it’s better than going to work and subjecting yourself to more pressure.

      It also depends on the severity of your mental illness. I just don’t want people having a default assumption that you need to be physically ill before feeling OK about taking PTO. That’s just sad.

      That’s great you got 3 months off with disability pay. Like a nice sabbatical!

      1. You’re right. Taking a few days off to go see a doctor is a great idea. The doctor can help figure things out.

  19. It is true that these PTO sick days are part of your compensation package. Your employer when offering you a salary on hire offsets the amount by assuming that you will use every single sick day available.

    This built in worse case scenario causes you to get a lower salary and any time you do not take is a win for the company.

    Some people are lucky that when the leave a company your accrued time off can be paid at your current hourly wage. I was fortunate that my residency did that and the money I got from unused time off actually was the equivalent to almost 2 months salary and helped my transition in moving so much easier.

  20. Early in my career I rarely ever took sick days. There definitely was a lot of pressure to show up. I remember a friend saying, “Just go in and show your face. If you still feel sick when you’re there, then you can go home early.” As I got older, I was much better about calling in from home and staying home when I felt sick.

    As for mental health days, I didn’t do a good job with those either. There were many days when I was incredibly stressed out and really could have benefited from time off. The difficulty was on those days when I felt so much stress, I also felt a huge amount of pressure to do my job because so many people were depending on me. So if I took time off to decompress, I’d be letting people down. I suppose what I should have done was perform when I was really needed and then take time to destress when the crunch was over and the deliverables were completed. It would have helped me a lot.

    Sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. That must have been devastating and very hard to manage at such a young age. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for you.

    Thanks for raising awareness!

  21. Ahhh, the ‘ole mental health day. I used to take the hardline approach to this back in my 20’s and 30’s when I was grinding. I thought it was B.S. I thought it showed weakness. I think I went 4 years at one point without taking a single hour of sick leave – for any reason. I even got an award for it.

    But as I got older and dare I say wiser I now see it differently. I see what that “grind away” mentality did to me. Heck, it’s most of the reason I semi-retired in my 40’s, I burnt out. My mind was always on “push” mode, and it never had a break.

    The last few years I was full time I was a senior manager and I had much more understanding for my employees who admitted they took a mental health day. Even though it was technically against our policies.

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