Can I Use Sick Leave for a Mental Health Day in California?

Posted by Sessions & Kimball |

With the stress of burnout, the aftermath of COVID-19, and high employee turnover rates, it’s not hard to guess that everyone is struggling with mental health. But can you use your sick days to take a mental health day off work in California?

In short – yes you can. Sick days are not specifically designated for physical health. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently added “Burnout” as a diagnosable illness. But just to be safe, let’s take a closer look at both state and federal laws.

California Paid Sick Leave

California has a Paid Sick Leave (PSL) law that applies to most employees. Employers are required to provide employees with at least 24 hours or three days off per year to most workers. To qualify, employees must be part or full-time, have worked for the same California employer for at least 30 days within a year, and have completed a 90-day employment period before taking sick leave. Additionally, a new law was added in 2021 that provides employees with up to 80 hours of paid leave for COVID-19, including quarantining, receiving vaccines, or caring for a child whose school or daycare is closed.

According to California law, PSL can be used for:

  • Recovering from physical/mental illness or injury
  • Seeking medical diagnosis, treatment, or preventative care
  • Caring for a family member who is ill or needs medical diagnosis, treatment, or preventative care

As you can see above, mental illness is covered under the state’s PSL law. Remember, mental health is health. You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental illness, and you don’t necessarily need to disclose to your employer why you are using sick leave. The laws are a little murky on how much you need to tell your boss about why you are taking a sick day, but most employers don’t probe too much, especially for just one day. Letting them know that you need a day for your health should be plenty.


Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, mental illness is included in the reasons you may use sick time. However, FMLA is reserved for serious health conditions such as “illness, injury, or impairment, or physical or mental condition.” For your mental illness to qualify for FMLA, it would need to require inpatient care or ongoing treatment by a healthcare provider. This can include depression and anxiety if they require treatment by a healthcare provider at least twice a year, and cause occasional periods where the employee is incapacitated.

Take a Mental Health Day

If you’d like to take a mental health day from work but you’re unsure whether it’s allowed, follow these steps:

  • Check your employee handbook for policies about paid sick leave.
  • Know your rights. If there are at least 50 employees at your company, it falls into federal labor protection territory. If your employer penalized you for using a sick day for mental health, it could be considered discrimination by the EEOC. Make sure to read up on which illnesses are protected by the ADA.
  • Remember – if you use PTO, you don’t need to explain why you’re using it.
  • If you are unsure about whether your employer is discriminating against you or violating employment laws, a lawyer who specializes in employee rights can help. As an employee, it’s important to know and defend your rights in the workplace.