On one hand, discussing your mental health at work can lead to fear of being judged, your work being viewed through a mental health lens, and/or worry about a burden on your employer. On the other hand, not having the conversation can lead to a lack of support in the workplace, possible exacerbation of mental health symptoms, misunderstandings with co-workers, and potential negative impact on productivity.
The purpose of this article is not to argue that employees should speak up if they struggle with mental health issues. Rather, it is about empowering employees to make an informed decision about whether or not to do so.
Before broaching the conversation with your boss, consider whether or not it is psychologically safe to do so. Coined by Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson, “psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” These are teams that tend to be more collaborative and are curious about mistakes instead of blaming. Dr. Laura Delizonna, executive coach, also writes that employees on these teams feel safe to take moderate risks, speak their minds, and be more creative.
If your work setting is not psychologically safe, it is more of a risk to speak up about your mental health. Have a backup plan if the conversation doesn’t progress as planned to help you process things and think through next steps (e.g., a supportive friend on-call; a therapy session lined up). If you choose not to speak up, or after speaking up, it’s clear your employer is not supportive, it is still important to get the mental health support you need. This likely means more effort outside of work to ensure you have the right treatment plan and support structure in place. In all cases, consider starting with a trusted colleague, friend, or counselor in order to practice what you want to say and anticipate any emotional reactions that may arise.
It’s recommended to start the conversation in a private setting and at a time that isn’t rushed. This ensures privacy and time for your boss to fully react to what you share, increasing chances that you will feel heard and understood. Ideally, allow for at least 20 minutes — ask for a special meeting just to discuss this topic if needed.
While first discussing your mental health during a performance evaluation is common, sharing before this process allows you time to work collaboratively with your manager to get the support you need, hopefully reducing impact on your performance. Moreover, it’s unlikely your manager will be able to change what’s written in your review, which could cause tension or discomfort between the two of you. Another common time this conversation is broached is during a personal crisis. Of course if you find yourself in a personal crisis, it’s good to share with your employer even if it’s the first time, as long as you feel comfortable doing so. But if you have a collaborative work plan in place before a crisis occurs, it ensures you can take the time you need for your mental health.
ASKING FOR SUPPORT
So now you may be thinking, “I know I need support, but how do I ask for it?” If you ask for your boss to support you and they say yes, it may be a huge relief, but be prepared to follow-up with something that fits the following model to increase chances of success!
IMPACT: Focus on impact (vs. the condition itself) and what’s necessary to get you the support you want
By focusing on how you are impacted by your mental health issues (vs. your specific diagnoses), it provides clearer context for your employer. Most people don’t fully understand what a clinical diagnosis means and that mental health issues present differently for each person. In order to understand and empathize, your employer may relate your diagnosis to what they already know. For example, if you only share with your boss that you have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but don’t give context to how it affects you, your boss will likely pull from their memory what they know about PTSD and try to fit you in that box. If all they know if it is that their Uncle Jerry struggled with it after the Vietnam war, then your boss may try to support you in the way they supported Uncle Jerry. Even if you are also a Vietnam vet, it’s unlikely that your PTSD is exactly the same — you likely have support needs that are unique to you! Focusing on the impact provides this context.
CURRENT SUPPORT: Talk about what you’re doing to get help already
Most managers want to help employees with their wellness goals, but they may err on the side of not asking about it for fear of being intrusive. To prevent unnecessary worrying, share what you’re doing to support yourself. This could include working with professionals, alternative treatments, social support in place, healthy eating and exercise, and other self-care activities. And only share what you’re comfortable sharing.
SUPPORT REQUEST: Your request should be concrete, specific, realistic, and reasonable
You’re more likely to get support if there’s something specific that your employer can act on. Often, employees don’t ask for specific support (e.g., “I don’t know what I need, I’m just having a hard time”), but this can lead to confusion and misunderstanding for both the employee and the employer. If you don’t know what you need, chat with a counselor or close friend to narrow down what would help you function better on the job.
Now let’s put this all together!
IMPACT: “I struggle with sleep issues, which makes it difficult for me to feel rested upon waking. About twice a month, I need to sleep in a little more in order to come to work refreshed and able to function + CURRENT SUPPORT: “I’m working with my doctor on a behavioral plan to improve my sleep, but it will take a few months to see results” + SUPPORT REQUEST: “I may come in 1-2 hours late on these days, but if that happens, I plan to stay late to make up the time and get my work done. I’ll also contact you when this happens and will try not to miss any important meetings. It would also help me if our 1:1 meetings were scheduled in the afternoon when I tend to feel more mentally awake.” This is something your boss can wrap their brain around!
Increasingly, employees want to bring their whole selves to work, including openness about their mental health. And more and more employers are supportive of this. Feel empowered to make the decision that’s right for you.