Sunday, March 14, 2010

Alternatives to a “Mental Health Day”

For the first time in years, I have a lull in my work load. With the slow economy I’ve had the luxury of working ahead. I’m between deadlines plus, waiting for my boss to finish his portion of a project before I can proceed. I can’t help but think this would be the perfect time to take a sick day. In the past, I’ve had difficulty calling in sick when I was actually sick. My job revolves around deadlines many of which the company can be fined for if not met. I don’t have anyone who can easily cover for me, so If a tax return is due or commissions need to be calculated I go to work even if sick.

At a previous job, one of my co-workers accused me of making her look bad; I never called in sick while she repeatedly used all of her sick days. She called them “mental health days.” I once asked her what she did on these mental health days. Mostly she read and caught up with her family’s laundry being careful not to leave the house fearing she would be caught. She often reminded me sick days are a benefit you lose if you don’t use.

I don’t want to use a vacation day, but a day of reading and blogging sounds pretty attractive right now compared to sitting at my desk trying to make myself look busy. My friend Bob grew so tired of watching his employees trying to look busy he instituted a furlough policy. Friday would be my day; I will call in sick and have a three day weekend. Then the guilt and my farm girl work ethic came into play:

My boss and my bosses boss know I’m not busy even asking me what I was working on while I was unsuccessfully trying to cut and paste a picture out of a newsletter onto my blog (it was technically lunchtime). They are going to know I’m faking it if I call in. I will then be lumped in with all the other employees with poor attitudes. Then it came to me -- what if I used this slow period to become a better employee. I’ve always been reactive rather than proactive and there are all those interview questions about self-initiative accomplishments I stumble through. Now is the time to update my work skills and our department. I came up with the following list:

Resolve all those little bugs in our systems and procedures:
Debug spreadsheets. Set up query reports for spreadsheets we now prepare manually. Update procedure manuals. Clean and organize my desk. Organize and delete old emails.

Create in-house computer accessible expense report; saving money on forms.

Interview outside payroll companies in search of a cheaper, more service oriented, less cumbersome system than we use now (ADP).

Offer to assist my overworked boss with his portion of the project we are working on. Ask him for additional work.

Talk to my boss’s boss. What would he like me to do to take our department to the next level? What would he like to receive from our department that he is not currently receiving?

Thursday night's episode of "The Office" only confirmed my decision not to call in sick. Kathy Bate’s character Jo says the following to Michael who wants to leave for the day:

"If you can put your name on this day and are proud of the work you’ve done by all means go home."
Do you take “Mental Health Days” when you’re not busy? If not, what do you do to keep busy?


  1. All good suggestions for those slow days. For those of us, who - like you - seldom have them, it can be hard to know what to do and we need to feel productive. I always do the clean up the desk, do all that filing that I've been putting off, and generally making my workspace more workable again. But, I liked your ideas of debugging the worksheets and making electronic forms, etc. Those are things that will not only keep you busy now, but will help you to be less busy somewhere down the road. And, will help you maintain your (probably well deserved) reputation of always doing the right thing for your employer. Kudos!

  2. I think the impulse to take time off is healthy and good, but I also think there are plenty of things that can be done at work during slow times to recharge. It sounds like you have the right idea! The number one thing I'd tell anyone is to *learn*. Spend some time doing or learning the things you've never had time for in the busy periods. Take a webinar, a second look at a inter-office process that drives you nuts, whatever! Retool during the downtime, ideally, use it to grow your own brain and enhance the work of the firm. Being mindful of costs, I doubt most bosses would reject an idea if they understood how the course will enhance work in future. Also, as a business owner, it would be impossible for me not to plead with those that work for smaller companies to give 100 percent commitment and keep productivity, quality, customer service, and innovation up in down times. It really matters to the customer, and the customer is the one that signs our paychecks.

  3. Webb,
    Thanks for your suggestions and encouragement.

    Learning during down can only be a win-win for both employer and employee. Thanks for the suggestions.

  4. I'm in a slow period right now, and thankfully, I've been filling the time with studying for my last exam. But as of April 2nd (hopefully), that will be the last time I have to do that. Your recommendations for filling in the slow periods are timely and ones I definitely need to remember next month!

    I will confess that I do take mental health days. They do occur when I know I do not have any deadlines looming. However, I will only take them if I have reached the point where I no longer want to get out of bed in the morning but rather wish I were sick versus going in to work. To me, I need a break from the politics, back-stabbing, and general antics at work. Only then will I call in sick.