How to Talk to Your Boss About Mental Health Issues

Think about how much to say, and when to say it.

While most employees won’t hesitate to call in sick or tell their boss they need time off for medical treatment, many people are far more reluctant to do that when the issue is related to mental health.

Despite the prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace – one study from the U.S. National Comorbidity Survey found that 18 percent of employed respondents said they had symptoms of a mental health disorder in the previous month – they tend to remain hidden at work, in large part because the stigma still attached to them makes people hesitant to approach their employers and ask for accommodations they might need.

That means that employees struggling with mental health issues have to deal not just with the issue itself, but also with the stress and anxiety of trying to figure out how much, if anything, they can tell their employers about what they’re dealing with. That’s frustrating because in some cases, you might want to give your manager context for why you might not be fully 100 percent at work, just like you might if you weren’t all full speed while getting over the flu. Or you might need to ask for medical accommodations, such as a schedule change, a quieter work space or time to attend therapy appointments.

Polly Drew, a psychotherapist specializing in relationship, marital and family issues, says to start by considering what you know of your manager. “Consider the variables,” she says. “Is your supervisor someone [who] you can talk to and if so, does he or she demonstrate any kind of a bias on a day-to-day basis? If you are a highly productive worker with an excellent relationship with your supervisor, and you trust him or her, it’s okay to explain a personal difficulty.”

In talking with your manager, keep these tips in mind.

Be very clear about specifically what you’re asking for. For example, Drew suggests you might say something 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?” Or, “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?”

Be measured in what you say. “Keep in mind that your employer is not your mom, dad or therapist,” says Drew. “Be vague with all the details and avoid being overly descriptive with how badly you feel. You also want to avoid giving diagnostic information. Firstly, you may have it wrong. Secondly, it may be too much information and you may be left with a ‘vulnerability hang over,’ feeling as if you disclosed too much. You are entitled to your privacy.”

Be mindful of the risks, but not paralyzed by caution. There can be risks to disclosing a mental health issue at work, and people often worry that they’ll be treated differently or even put their jobs in peril. But it can help to pay attention to what you know about how your manager and your company operate. “Some supervisors handle difficulties that their employees are having with ease,” notes Drew. “Others do not. Pay attention to what you’ve observed to help you determine if your boss will handle your difficulty with care. Remember that keeping excellent boundaries at work will help in the long run.”

Get a professional involved in your care. If your condition is affecting you at work, a licensed mental health professional can help you figure out how to navigate the situation and decide what, if anything, to tell your boss.

If your company offers resources, use them! If your company has an employee assistance program (EAP), Drew recommends accessing it as soon as possible. “You don’t need permission from a supervisor or human resources” to use an EAP, she says. “They are there to help you, and best of all, it’s confidential and free.”

Know your legal rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal law that protects employees with physical or mental impairments, may offer you some protection at work. It’s important to keep in mind that the ADA doesn’t contain a list of specific conditions that constitute disabilities. Rather, the law has a general definition of disability; it covers “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.” What that means, in practice, is that whether or not you’re covered will depend on your specific symptoms.

However, if you are covered, the law says that you are entitled to reasonable accommodations from your employer if such accommodations will help you to maintain your job performance. However, you still must be able to perform the essential functions of your job, with or without accommodations.

Use helpful resources. These resources can be good starting points for finding mental health care:

National Institute of Mental Health
Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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