The title says it all:

Why is "I'm stressed and need the day off" a bad reason to take the day off? And how can I phrase it so that it would be more acceptable? I've seen this attitude at my current and previous workplaces, as well as reading on the Internet and talking with other people about their workplaces.

We use A Paid-Time-Off pool, so we just have a pool of time we can draw from, but we're supposed to give notice as far ahead of time as possible. No one else at my workplace ever takes sick days (unless they're in the hospital - I'm not exaggerating here) and the general view is that taking time off is time spent not being productive.

If I'm so stressed or tired that I'm making mistakes, how do I tell my boss this without seeming like a slacker? How do I get him to understand this will not go away with a single night of good sleep?

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    I don't understand the problem you're trying to solve. Why do you feel it's a bad reason? Did you try it and get knocked back? On what grounds? Also, this might be a cultural thing, so a location tag might be helpful to get a response from someone in the same region.
    – pdr
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 16:46
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    @Poleeeez - Just tell your boss you need to take a day off do not give a reason. If there is push back you can deal with that but you do not have a problem right now because you have even asked to take it. PTO is there because businesses realize that sometimes you need a day off. Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 16:54
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    I agree with the other commenters who noted that we need more context for the question; your last comment seems to indicate that the problem you are trying to solve is about backlash you receive from saying you need to take PTO, or that PTO in your company requires notice. These would be good edits to make. The reason we need more info is that the issue you're describing is not found in all companies.
    – jcmeloni
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 17:13
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    I think that OP is really asking about why a particular reason for PTO/sick-day ("the mental health day") is frowned upon in his organization. Whether or not it is wise to actually indicate a reason when requesting a sick-day is a closely related additional question.
    – Angelo
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 17:19
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    @Angelo Right; if it's the first question, then no one here can really answer that.... If it's the latter, then some general guidance certainly could be given.
    – jcmeloni
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 17:44

5 Answers 5


Sit down with your boss in a one-on-one environment and express your feelings in a positive way.

Rather than saying you're stressed (which has medical implications that might cause your boss to panic), say that you feel like you're not on the top of your game. Rather than suggesting that it's a problem if you don't get a day off, suggest that it's a good thing, for everyone, if you do.

Suggest that you'd like to use one of your paid days off to extend the weekend and recharge, to be twice as productive next week.

Make it clear that you're being honest and giving him fair warning, rather than just calling in sick or waiting til you actually burn out.

In my experience, more often than not, this culture of not taking time owed is created by the workers more than the management. It's often the fault of the management, for crediting activity over productivity (which encourages people to be in the office for long hours, doing nothing). But if you spoke to the managers and said "Why do you discourage people from taking time off?" they'd be horrified.

If that's the situation you're in then just don't worry about what those people think of you.

However, if you do ask for the time off and you're treated poorly as a result, you should take some more time off anyway and use it to look for another job. Some companies just don't deserve the effort you're willing to put in.

  • 5
    -1: Rather than saying you're stressed (which has medical implications that might cause your boss to panic)... The OP specifically stated that he/she is stressed, and if we're abiding by your "100% honesty" policy, then this isn't a viable strategy. // ...say that you feel like you're not on the top of your game - If the OP followed my advice, this was certainly a viable strategy. I left the "excuse" field wide open.
    – Jim G.
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 18:43
  • @Poleeeez: I basically said the same thing. pdr isn't recommending you tell the "truth" either (unless the truth is that you're not stressed).
    – Jim G.
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 18:45
  • @JimG. Absolutely, and I would have given you a +1 if I were able (same as I would for @pdr). The issue is not that I'm not stressed, but that I need to balance my stress and tiredness against my boss's perception of me; something more manageable by sitting down and saying, "more sleep for me would benefit you". So in a sense, you're correct - I can't directly say "I'm stressed", but I have to convey that stress in different words - at the same I don't want to use a different excuse ("I'm sick", etc).
    – Poleeeez
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 18:52
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    @JimG.: You said "Don't tell your boss." and didn't really suggest an alternative. That's implying "lie," or, at best, "don't say anything." I said "tell him but be sure to phrase it in a positive way," which is subtly different.
    – pdr
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 19:33
  • The problem ended up being a lack of communication. I'm (almost) the sole developer/architect on this project, and it turns out clients are having problems (that Support apparently can't duplicate) and no one is telling me. I asked for the day off, and my boss told me about the issues for the first time. I agreed that I'd rather be here putting out fires than sitting on my butt, so it ended well.
    – Poleeeez
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 20:18

It depends on the manager, really. Personally, my boss wouldn't blink at an occasional call or e-mail stating I couldn't come in, so long as it wasn't abused (Monday/Friday absenteeism, taking off with a deadline looming or on the day of a major meeting).

The idea that "you're stressed and need a day off" can sound a bit selfish from pretty much anyone else's standpoint. How is your job more stressful than anyone else's on your team? Your boss's? Why should you get a random day off on short notice when everyone else is expected to show up? In addition, because it's this random day off that you're taking, in effect, "because I want to", it can make you look unreliable. Your boss usually likes to know who will be working for him in the next week or two and when, and if you make him wonder whether he'll get a call-in from you on any given day, that reflects poorly on you. Thus, when time off must be taken unplanned, it usually looks best when it's for good reason.

However, the reality is that from time to time we all get that way. Everyone I know both personally and professionally has used a sick day to play hookey and recharge, including my current boss and his boss. We call it taking a "mental health day". There are specific other cute names for taking an unplanned day off for some non-work activity; "green fever" (want to go golfing), "deer flu" (first day of deer season), "anal glaucoma" ("I can't see my ass coming into work today"). Under our old company's policies, sick days could be taken for any reason including no reason at all, as long as you had the sick days to take. Under new policies of a company that's bought us, there has to be some substantiation of a personal illness or family emergency to take more than a single sick day. The general response from the management on our side has been to ignore personal time logging altogether for salaried employees. Thus, the difference in corporate attitudes toward "free-form vacation".

  • 1
    This is a great answer ("the reality is that ... we all get that way"), and really reflects the attitudes I've picked up on (in the second paragraph, oh my yes). "The general response from the management on our side has been to ignore personal time logging altogether for salaried employees." - sadly it's gone the opposite way here; though the logs may not be looked at (only one boss), we're logged for everything, even bathroom breaks.
    – Poleeeez
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 19:23
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    We had a big problem with Monday / Friday absences. Fully 40% of the sick days were being taken on Monday or Friday. Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 19:37
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    @Poleeeez - I worked for such a company as my first job. Let me just say that those companies, ruled with an iron fist by one man who signs your paychecks, is the environment in which you are least likely to make a "mental health day" fly, and at the same time they are the environments in which you most need a couple.
    – KeithS
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 19:39
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    @Poleeeez - Then frankly, even in this economy, I'd be looking to change jobs. Trust me, it's not worth it.
    – KeithS
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 19:41
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    @Poleeeez Even you need your teeth cleaned occasionally. Are your immunizations up to date? When's the last time you had an eye exam? I'll bet you have family that could use your help, or a residence that needs some professional scheduled, maintenance. Don't use reasons that let your boss interpret the message, unless you trust him to not interpret the message in possibly unfavorable ways. If your boss is disgruntled with the necessary tasks of your ability to live well, there's a reason. Rarely is the reason is mean spirited, mostly it has to do with prior obligations or money.
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 19:53

One reason that a request off due to mental fatigue is frowned upon comes from a lack of empathy and understanding of mental illnesses among society. We* hastily define people with a mental illness as crazy, disturbed, or any other assortment of negative connotations.

Tell the boss you're taking a day of cause you contacted the flu and no one thinks anything of it. You eat some chicken noodle soup, drink some water, sleep and return to work in a few days. It's common and quickly forgotten.

Tell your boss you're feeling depressed, stressed, anxious (or worse!) and people don't know how to cope. Some people don't know what that's like, or don't deal with it well themselves. It's as though you were given a scarlet letter. People who I've worked with in the past were often spoken about in hushed tones when someone referenced their 'issue'. It's not pleasant, and it's not fair.

I think this stems from our lack of focus on understanding how to deal with issues of mental illness and a general distain for anything associated as such. This is especially true with men. For some, the idea of seeing a therapist for help is seen as a sign of weakness. It's not, of course, and should be treated as any other sort of illness. In some cases preventable, in others treatable and at the worse, manageable.

*Not you or I, of course, but those other people. :-)


It isn't a bad request if you are free and clear to use your PTO in a free manner. It sounds as if your PTO pool that you describe doesn't quite have the value that you may think it does at this organization. Look at the pros and cons of this PTO time that you have and decide for yourself the true cost of taking personal time.

  1. Are you required to state a reason for the PTO? Some places do not require you to give an explicit reason or excuse for taking unscheduled time off. If you must give a reason then this is a potential cost.

  2. Penalty or disciplinary action for a fixed amount/time of unscheduled time off? This too is a stipulation.

  3. Use it or lose it? Does it accumulate year to year? If so do you eventually lose PTO that goes unused over so long a period? These can be huge costs that detract from the true value of your PTO at this organization.

  4. How competitive is your workplace? Some places like to keep bodies in the seats by fostering a highly competitive culture amongst employees. In essence the employees give a powerful emotional and social fear incentive to discourage the use of each others PTO. This can be a hidden cost that prevents you from truly enjoying the value of ones earned PTO.

  5. Is the competitive nature of your workplace based on merit or based on winning manager approval? This is important. I work at a place where I am judged by merit and the quality of my work. I freely use my PTO without fear of what others think because in the end, I am only being judged by the quality of my work and whether I meet my deadlines. If merit takes a back seat to general manager approval then a manager simply can foster an environment that devalues everybodies PTO simply by rewarding the individuals who sacrifice the most of their personal lives and fall in line and take orders from them without question. This management behavior is what fosters the fear based environment that so greatly devalues your PTO as described in bullet point #4.

Based on this, you can evaluate how valuable your PTO really is to you and if makes sense for you in the grand scheme of your total compensation. The costs of your PTO come in two flavors though:

  1. Tangible costs: Those that have clearly definied limitations

  2. Intangible or imagined costs: Those that are not so clear where the line is drawn, or that may just have an emotional or social impact upon you.

In the case of Intangible costs to your PTO, the only thing stopping you from using your PTO is your own fear about how you will be percieved by management or your peers for taking this. It is up to you if you if it is worth it to face these fears or if this will just end up causing you more stress than what the PTO will relieve from you.

If you feel that taking PTO is causing you more stress than it is relieving then you may have to make a decsision for your health and well being. If it is a highly demanding and competitive job, then perhaps you are just not strong enough right now in your life to handle the requirements of this job, so it may make sense for you to look for something else that is more suitable to your healthy tolerance of workplace stress. There is no shame in admitting this to oneself.

  • @mape_shaft - So in so many words he should worry less about the perception of taking the time off and just take it. This assumes he is not the sole guy who can approve/block a huge (known) release.
    – Donald
    Commented Sep 20, 2012 at 12:02

Why is "I'm stressed and need the day off" a bad reason to take the day off?

It's actually a good reason.

If I'm so stressed or tired that I'm making mistakes, how do I tell my boss this without seeming like a slacker?

Don't tell your boss. Here's why:

  • If you tell your boss, then he/she will worry that you're unable to handle your workload.
  • He/she may begin to see you as a poor performer, and this may impact your next performance review.
  • He/she may begin to divert your assignments to other teammates, and this may derail your hopes for a promotion.

Objectively speaking, could you be overburdened with too much work? Absolutely. However, that's a topic for another time.

  • If you're the horse that your boss is riding on, you just can't quit during the journey.
  • After the journey is complete, a good boss will conduct some sort of retrospective or post-mortem so that he/she can divide the work more evenly next time.
  • But telling your boss that you're faltering because you're overburdened with work conveys the impression of "quitting during the journey", and that's just not in your best interest.

So here's my advice:

  • Take one day off if you must, but not more than one day.
  • And don't tell your boss that you need to take a day off because you're stressed.
    • Use some other excuse.

EDIT: Angelo raised a good point.

  • A "good" organization won't penalize workers for taking a "mental health day".
  • However, you may not work for a good organization. ;)
  • And even if you do... Newsflash: The world is a competitive place.
    • Would you like to lose the inside track on a promotion or social standing in your work team?
  • 1
    I'm not convinced by the dishonest approach. If you are convinced that a day off is enough to get you back in gear then convincing your boss of that should be easy. It doesn't have to sound like quitting, more like recharging. If not then you're going to need to do something more drastic than just take a day off. Lying serves no good purpose and could backfire if the one day doesn't solve the problem.
    – pdr
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 17:34
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    @pdr: Have you ever been a manager or a team lead? How would you view a direct report who told you that he/she was stressed out? Even if you didn't penalize them, would you put them on the fast track for promotion?
    – Jim G.
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 17:36
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    Yes, I have. And I've had this exact conversation with people who've worked for me (much to my shame). I don't see taking a day to recharge as quitting and I would MUCH rather know how my staff feel (and try not to repeat the mistake) than hear a stream of lies.
    – pdr
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 17:39
  • I must agree with @pdr - I'd like to be honest and respectful as much as possible, while at the same time preserving my health and sanity at the same time. Thank you for bringing up good points though!
    – Poleeeez
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 18:11
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    @Poleeeez: I don't want you to compromise your health and sanity. That's my #1 priority.
    – Jim G.
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 18:12

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