Figures from mental health charity Mind show that one in four people in the UK suffer from a mental health problem every year. To add to that, one in six will experience common mental problems like anxiety and depression in any given week. Even though the prevalence of issues like this is incredibly high, especially in those under 35, most people still feel obligated to partition their mental health from their work life because they don't feel comfortable bringing it up. With this in mind, here are some tips on how to talk to your boss about your mental health.
For anyone who regularly suffers with mental health problems, they will know how difficult it is to maintain a professional front, get your work done, while simultaneously keeping an eye on yourself. Very few people have the option to take a sick day when experiencing a bad day, and many of us financially don't have that option, so instead are forced to soldier on and multi-task our job and what's going on in our heads until the end of the shift. Being able to talk to your boss about your needs makes a huge difference, and there are some ways you can make that conversation easier.
It goes without saying that you are by no means compelled to disclose any mental health details to your employer, but many people find that it's a conversation they could have, they just don't know how to initiate it. You might manage perfectly well most of the time, but mental health is by its very nature unpredictable, and letting your manager know that there may be a time when you won't be coping 100 percent will make it easier to deal with if it happens. Often, knowing that the option will be there if we need a little bit of extra time, space, and compassion can be enough to set our minds at ease.
Sheila Drexler, Psychotherapist and Counsellor at ThoughtSpace Dublin, advises people to break down this task into steps to avoid getting overwhelmed. "You may want to think about who is the best person to talk to about it? When is a good time to discuss it? How much are you going to say and how are you going to say it?" Drexler added that it may not always be necessary to "go into personal details. It may be more relevant to discuss how your mental health is affecting your job."
If the thoughts of talking candidly about your mental health are far from ideal, that's totally understandable, and there is a way around it. You will still need to have the conversation to a degree, but your GP can write you a letter explaining what you want to communicate to your boss. Not having to say everything out loud takes away some of the pressure and it's easier to talk to your GP about depression and anxiety than it is someone at work.
Try not to catastrophise and assume that the conversation will go badly. Your boss is a person after all and people can often surprise you with how understanding they can be. Societal stigma and a tradition of not being able to talk openly about mental illness in work environments makes us expect the outcome to be negative. Also, given how common issues like depression, anxiety, and panic attacks are, your boss may have experience in some capacity already.
Going in to the conversation with a goal in mind can help keep you focused. For example, if there are certain things about your role or environment that contribute to a low mood more than they should, or that exacerbate things on bad days, try and highlight them. Mind recommend suggesting possible adjustments, like having the option to work from home, temporarily re-allocating tasks you find stressful and difficult, being allowed to take time off work for treatment, assessment, or rehabilitation, and having a flexible approach to start and finish times.
Initiating a conversation like this can feel daunting and it's natural to feel apprehensive, but breaking it into steps will make it more manageable. Email or ask your boss in person to have a private chat. And remember, that's all it is — a chat. Condense what you want to say into a sentence or two that you can draw on; knowing what you want to get across is key.
Attitudes to mental illness have changed rapidly in the past decade even and as workplace practices modernise, so do office environments and having conversations like this with your employer become easier. There are a lot of businesses who have resources available for staff who need mental health support. But for those who aren't at that stage yet, having an honest conversation about your needs is the best way to go to making sure your employer knows that there may be a time when you need some leeway.