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Avoid This Crucial Mistake When Taking a Mental Health Break, Says a Top Psychologist

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After an exceptionally stressful year-and-a-half, some companies are finally telling their employees to take a break.

This week, apparel giant Nike's headquarters were largely empty: The company gave many of its workers the full week off. The move followed similar strategies from social media platform LinkedIn and dating app Bumble, which each gave employees a full week off in April and June, respectively. Bumble later announced the tactic as a twice-yearly perk.

Next week, hospitality start-up Getaway — a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based vacation rental service with 580 tiny, isolated cabins spread across the country — plans to temporarily close down for its 341 employees. "Having time off is good for us, and makes us experience things besides work," says Getaway founder and CEO Jon Staff. "It also makes us better at our work."

For the most part, companies using this strategy are encouraging staffers to leave work behind: no logging on to check emails, or work-related meetings. At Getaway, Staff says, one employee is going home to visit family after their mother's passing. Another is expecting a visit from their child who's in the army. Staff says those stories help justify the nearly $1 million expense of fully compensating every employee during the week off. What he expects in return from his team is simple: "Don't work."

Here's the problem, according to psychologists: Many people tend to struggle with that seemingly straightforward request. Lynn Bufka, a senior director at the American Psychological Association, says it's a natural human tendency to instead jump straight into your stressful and ever-growing to-do list during your time off.

Fight that impulse, she says.

Identify and reshape your 'stressors'

Mental health breaks are supposed to help you recover from stress and burnout. But staring at a long list of tasks without a clear understanding of where to start can be surprisingly stressful.

Before playing catch-up on your household chores or personal projects, Bufka says, give yourself a quick mental health self-assessment. She suggests these five questions to help you identify your biggest stressors:

  1. What's my general mood like right now?
  2. How am I interacting with the people close to me, at home and work?
  3. Do I feel overwhelmed or stressed in one area of my life more than another?
  4. What bad habits do I want to break?
  5. What good habits do I want to build?

Once you identify your stressors, find a new habit that can directly help combat each one — like going for walks, cooking more at home, reorganizing your closets or getting at least eight hours of sleep per night. Bufka recommends building those habits into your routine during your time-off. Set calendar reminders to make sure they stick, she says, so they don't slip away once you get back to work.

"I encourage people to think in micro-ways so they can build new habits in their return to work," she says. "Can they schedule into their workday the habits built in during work-from-home and time off?"

The strategy is meant to help free up any clouded headspace you may have, helping you maximize your mental health recovery during your time off. Once you've done your self-assessment, Bufka says, feel free to proceed with your plans — from going on vacation or visiting family to taking care of life's chores.

Bufka also notes that successful companywide mental health breaks start from the top down. She recommends that leadership avoid sending work-related emails during time off, to model expectations for employees.

Staff says he's happy to lead by example. He plans to spend the week mostly relaxing at home, only traveling once — to upstate New York, to see his favorite singer-songwriter perform.

"I'm burdened by having to set the example of having some free time myself," he says with a chuckle.

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