Talking to your boss about health issues can be challenging at the best of times — but when it comes to how to talk to your boss about mental health issues specifically, it can feel like you’re playing the game on hard mode. Despite the prevalence of mental health issues in our society — according to the National Alliance On Mental Health (NAMI), one in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness in a given year — it’s often considered taboo to talk about them. But our wellbeing depends on being able to discuss mental health; as such, having a few techniques in your back pocket can help make these difficult but necessary workplace conversations go a little more smoothly.
The first thing to remember is that having these kinds of conversations with your supervisor might not be as scary as you think it will be. “More and more companies are becoming less judgmental about these issues — and not only because it helps their employees,” Clarissa Silva, behavioral scientist, relationship coach, and creator of Your Happiness Hypothesis Method, tells Bustle in an email. “It also helps their bottom line because, in addition to the issue of productivity, it reduces other health risk costs.” That doesn’t mean that stigma is no longer a problem (sadly, it is), but attitudes towards mental health are changing, particularly in the workplace — and they’re generally changing for the better.
That said, though, there are still more and less effective ways to talk with your boss about mental health; despite the fact that the subject matter may be emotionally fraught, you do still want to remain professional about it. These six pointers will help you walk that line:
1Know Your Boss
Before you set up any meetings or schedule any conversations, take stock of your boss’ general management style, as well as your specific relationship with them. How do they communicate with their reports? Do they respond well to concerns from employees? Do you have good rapport with them? Are they Miranda Priestley? Asking yourself these kinds of questions and assessing your manager’s behavior will help you determine the most effective ways to proceed.
Hopefully, your boss is reasonable, even if they’re not necessarily warm or personable; that should clear the way for a more straightforward discussion. “If your relationship with your boss is good and if you trust [them], sharing some details of your situation will be a lot easier,” says Clarissa Silva, behavioral scientist, relationship coach, and creator of Your Happiness Hypothesis Method, to Bustle via email. However, if your boss is not reasonable — and the sad fact of the matter is that there are an awful lot of unreasonable managers out there — you may need to adjust tone and style, as well as your expectations for how the conversation might go.
2Be Matter-Of-Fact About It
If your manager falls into the “reasonable” camp, you might consider a more forthcoming route. That’s what web developer Madalyn Parker did one day in June in 2017; when she needed to take some sick days to take care of her mental health, she emailed her team at Olark Live Chat, where she worked, saying simply, “Hey team, I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 percent.”
CEO Ben Congleton then replied to her email thanking her for her frankness, stating that to him, it was “a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health.” The exchange went viral when Parker posted it to Twitter (with Congleton’s blessing) — and it’s no wonder that it did: It’s a perfect model of how discussions around mental health and sick time in the workplace should be conducted.
3Don’t Feel Like You Have To Say More Than You’re Comfortable With
However, if your boss regretfully occupies the “unreasonable” camp, know, too, that you don’t have to say more than you’re comfortable with. “When it comes to talking to your boss about your mental health, in most cases you don’t have to disclose your mental health condition but general health issues that you may need some provisions for,” Clarissa Silva tells Bustle.
One of the strategies Alison Green of the work advice website Ask A Manager recommends is to keep your language vague when you’re calling out sick for a mental health day — particularly if you don’t know your boss that well, if you know that they respond poorly to mental health-related discussions, or if you simply aren’t comfortable going into great detail about your mental health. Going with something simple like “I’m not feeling well” should get the job done without requiring you to disclose more than you’d like to.
4Ask For Accommodations If You Need Them
And be specific about your needs when you do (don't just wail into the abyss like Nick here). Says Silva, “Preparing talking points in advance that includes a list of things from needing time off to accommodations you made in your environment to optimize your chances for success can be helpful in your advocacy.” She adds, “Advocating for yourself can decrease the likelihood of experiencing negative symptoms that could impact your productivity.”
Psychotherapist Polly Drew expressed similar views when speaking with Alison Green for a piece published in U.S. News and World Report in 2016. Drew suggested using scripts like, “As you know, my sister died. I am wondering if I could work through lunch and take off at 3 p.m. to go see my therapist?” and “I've been struggling with sleep and working with my doctor. I'm wondering if I could start 30 minutes later for the next six weeks while I get this under control?” It’s true that your boss might say no — but if they’re reasonable, they shouldn’t have a problem with these kinds of requests.
5Consider Looping In HR
Going to HR isn’t always the best answer for workplace issues — Alison Green frequently underlines the fact that HR exists to protect the company’s interests, not necessarily the employees’, and, as Suzanne Lucas of the website Evil HR Lady pointed out in a 2017 piece for Inc., even when HR does go to bat for employees, management may still ignore their recommendations — but depending on both your company and your specific GR department, it might be worth a shot, particularly if you’re doing something like seeking accommodations per the Americans With Disabilities Act (head here for detailed info on what is and isn’t covered by the ADA). “You might consider talking to the HR department first,” advises Clarissa Silva, especially if you don’t have strong rapport with your boss. “HR will be familiar with the laws in your state. … They are also familiar with what your rights are and what your employer has to comply with.”
6Frame It As A Heads-Up
This one will probably only fly if your boss is reasonable, but it’s worth keeping in mind as a simple tool that might make a world of difference: If you know you’ve been underperforming as a result of an ongoing mental health issue, addressing it head-on with your boss can help ease your anxiety about it. As Alison Green writes at Ask A Manager, “If you will help give you peace of mind, it’s always fine to say to your manager, ‘Hey, I’ve had a tough few weeks and I just wanted to let you know in case it’s showing. I’m working on getting back on track though.’”
Of course these pointers are far from definitive. If you work with a therapist, they'll likely be able to help you strategize about how to talk to your boss about your mental health; online or IRL support groups might also have some ideas for you; and there are a growing number of free, low-cost, and accessible mental health resources available that may be useful for figuring out how to broach the subject at work. Your mental health always, always matters — and plenty of people have your back when you need it.