A mental break is any activity that lets people distance themselves from immediate (and often stressful) tasks, relax, and recharge. It involves activities that can help one unwind.
Mental health breaks are different from traditional vacations or days off. They are shorter, more frequent, and less formal in nature. A mental health break doesn't need to last more than 15 minutes in some cases.
There is some overlap, though. A week-long vacation can include a series of mental health breaks or be one itself.
It’s a good idea to combine the two, taking shorter, regular breaks during the week and longer ones to reset on a deeper level.
What do you do during a mental health break?
Sometimes, breaks are unplanned, and you take one when you need to. A further difference to traditional vacations is that breaks are characterized by a specific activity, such as listening to music, writing in a journal, doodling, or meditating.
Listening to music is an effective way to restore comfort levels and reduce stress. It can improve your mood and even your sleep.
Writing can relieve stress, provide mental clarity, and help you adjust your attitude.
Meditation can lower anxiety, extend your attention span, and energize you.
You can do the above on vacation, but typically, the vacation won't be limited to that.
Here are three compelling reasons to start taking mental breaks today.
1. They can prevent serious health problems
The human body can cope with brief periods of stress, but prolonged or constant stress puts one in a state when anything that requires effort feels overwhelming, including positive experiences. Chronic stress is associated with digestive issues, frequent headaches, high blood pressure, and a risk of stroke or heart disease. Taking mental breaks lets your body and brain reset and cope with stressors more effectively.
2. They improve performance and potentially quality of life
Studies have found that mental breaks reduce recovery time and help maintain performance. A lower need for recovery (NFR) at the end of the day correlated with climbing stairs, standing, taking an active lunch break, and the ability to relax and detach at work and at home.
After you take a break, you can approach a task or a problem from a new perspective. Taking a moment to recharge gives you the opportunity to understand why you are feeling a certain way. It can "reboot" your brain to be more tuned in.
There is great ambiguity when it comes to the nexus of mental health and quality of life. Can we speak of quality if the cure is worse than the disease? According to the role functioning model, a person has good quality of life if they perform adequately and their needs are satisfied. It would follow that mental health breaks heighten quality of life by improving performance.
3. Mental health issues make it harder to build resilience
Resilience is often referred to as the ability to cope with stress, and building it is impeded by mental health problems. Chronic stress can trigger mental health disorders. Investing time in your mental health will help reduce this risk.
Learn to be kinder to yourself and make time for things you enjoy. Don't criticize yourself for spending a day doing nothing. Reward yourself, even for small achievements.
It's hard to relax if you can't get out of a stressful situation, but brief breaks can help you feel better. If you're isolated or lonely, shared hobbies are a convenient route to human contact.
How do you know you need to start taking mental breaks?
If you're often or constantly irritable, uneasy, or on edge, you might be developing an anxiety disorder. Tachycardia and feelings of fear or panic are among the symptoms. Stress activates the fight-or-flight system. The amygdala, a brain organ that regulates emotion, struggles to normalize stress responses.
You feel exhausted
Constant feelings of mental or physical exhaustion are a sign of burnout. Feeling drained or fatigued is more common in people whose work involves high focus and concentration. Caring for a sick person or children contributes to or causes burnout.
Mental burnout, in particular, can make you feel despondent and less motivated in all aspects of life. For example, you might feel resentful or angry about having to go to work or take care of someone. If your energy is low or you always feel tired, you need a mental break to rejuvenate.
Mental health and the workplace: Best and worst countries
Attitudes toward mental health and mental health breaks at workplaces vary around the world. Below are some developed countries that are good and not so good in this context.
The best: New Zealand and The Netherlands
New Zealand takes the top spot. The country has an advanced attitude toward mental health conditions and treatment. Employees are allowed time off for mental health. The policies for employee sick leave are strong.
The Dutch have a progressive attitude towards mental health recovery and comprehensive sick leave policies. People who are struggling can take days off work to recover. Employees who are mentally unwell can take sick leave for up to two years and still receive 70% of their salaries.
The average: The UK and Brazil
In the UK, taking time off for mental health is the same as for a physical condition from a legal standpoint, but employers take the latter more seriously. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, employees in the UK take twice as much time off for colds and coughs as for stated mental health issues.
In Brazil, employees generally have access to generous sick leave packages, but the opportunities for recovery depend on the location. For example, wealthier regions have more and better-qualified mental health professionals.
The worst: The US and Japan
US employers are not particularly supportive of staff who need sick leave for mental health. In Japan, most people use their annual leave to cover sick days.
How can employers support mental health breaks?
The biggest challenge is the stigma surrounding mental health issues. In many parts of the world, it makes people hesitant to admit they need a mental break. Employers can help address the challenge by making employee assistance programs available, although they don’t do away with the stigma completely. Staff may still be reluctant to use this resource due to embarrassment or lack of understanding about how the programs are run.
Employers can send mental health newsletters rather than post notices in break rooms, which is the norm for many organizations that offer employee assistance programs. The newsletters can remind staff that these benefits are available and paid for.
Employers can support their employees’ mental health by organizing workshops where all participants learn more about health and resilience.
Company executives should mention emotional well-being in the context of recruitment and development of an inclusive culture that brings out the best in staff.
Executives can take mandatory mental health training to increase their awareness of the issue.
Mental health coverage should be included in the health care plan.
Company managers should be trained to recognize signs of emotional distress.
Employees’ schedules should be flexible, if possible.
Employers might consider offering yoga classes, a space for meditation, or mindfulness training. They could also offer access to apps to help reduce stress and improve sleep.
Finally, employees should be encouraged to use their vacation time. Employers can do this by limiting how much vacation time they can roll over into the following year.
How to explain to your employer you need a break
Having an employer who doesn’t understand the importance of mental breaks can be very frustrating. Don't say more than what is absolutely necessary. Be brief, concise, and direct, and ask them as soon as possible.
You should say a few words about why you need a break. Plan what you’re going to say in advance.
If you are sure they won’t understand, don’t tell them you need a break for your mental health. You can tell them you have the flu or a migraine.
Tips for taking effective mental breaks
Decide on a break time or set an alarm on your phone to prompt you, assuming you don’t have a 9-to-5 job. When you take a break, be attentive to any benefits you experience. If you remember them, you’ll be more motivated to take breaks.
Put up drawings or notes in your office to remind you that you won’t complete the task you’re struggling with if you burn out.
Finally – and most critically - don’t think about work or problems when you’re taking a break.