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The Burned-Out Employee’s Guide to the Perfect Mental Health Day

JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images
JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images,

by Kara Baskin

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We don’t take nearly enough time off. Americans are now using the fewest vacation days in four decades, according to a recent study by Oxford Economics. Despite earning an average of 21 paid days each year, we use just 77 percent of them. That needs to change. The occasional day off—a real day off, without errands or email—wards off burnout and helps us to renew. Mary LoVerde, former director of the University of Colorado’s Hypertension Research Center and author of The Invitation: When You’re Ready to Take Your Next Step, plots the ultimate relaxing day—the one that will return you to your job refreshed and recharged to tackle the challenges you face.

Think about the best leaders of all time: When they needed a mental health day, they went to the mountains, the trees, the desert.

Mary LoVerde

Step 1: Get still. Really still, as in no television, music or books. “Think about the best leaders of all time: When they needed a mental health day, they went to the mountains, the trees, the desert. Gandhi didn’t start screaming, ‘Come on, I need some world peace here!’ He slowed down,” says LoVerde. Once in a while, she takes three days of silence for reflection. “At first, the silence is deafening. I talk to myself. I sleep. By the third day, I don’t want to come back!” she says. Not doable? Even an hour of complete stillness will give your brain a crucial break.

Step 2: Power down the tech. “On average, we check our phone 150 times per day and 10 times per hour,” LoVerde says. “It’s like a slow drip of cortisol, sending our brain messages to look out. At the same time, when we hear that ding! we get a little hit of the reward hormone dopamine.” This pinball game keeps us thoroughly rattled, so eliminate the devices to regain an even emotional playing field. “The planets will stay in orbit, I promise,” Lo Verde says with a laugh.

Step 3: Take yourself on a date. “Wander! Linger!” LoVerde urges. Don’t give yourself a time frame or an agenda. Instead, be your own muse: Impulsively pop into that café you’ve always wanted to try or the boutique you’re usually too busy to visit. For inspiration, LoVerde recommends reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a primer on rediscovering inner creativity.

Step 4: Watch something funny. “It’s therapeutic to laugh, and research shows we don’t do nearly enough of it,” LoVerde says. With laughter, she says, we sleep better, we boost our immune system, and we steer our brain from sabotaging thoughts. Whether it’s an old Saturday Night Live episodeor the latest from Amy Schumer, indulge in something that delights you.

Step 5: Connect with someone. “Most of us have a person we haven’t talked to in weeks or months or years—but every time we’re together, that person makes us laugh or gives good advice. Not only do we like who they are, we like who we are when we’re with them,” she says. In a world filled with draining colleagues and harried commuters, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that there are sparkly, buoyant people in this world, too.

Step 6: Take a nap. “We have found the fountain of youth, and it is called sleep,” LoVerde says. Healthy sleep habits lead to lower blood pressure, more energy and weight loss. “The more you push through, the slower you get,” she cautions.

So give yourself a break. Not only do you deserve it—it’s good for you.