How to talk about mental health with your boss

Author: Kathryn Vasel, CNN Business
Published: Updated:
Credit: CNN

The global pandemic has stress levels running high these days.

“One of the first things on everyone’s mind is the uncertainty around us. Uncertainty in our jobs, kids going to school, of just going to the grocery store. There is a lot of weight on us,” said Benjamin Miller, a psychologist and chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust, a national foundation focusing on mental and social health.

And it’s having an impact on our mental health, which can interfere with our work. That makes it an employer’s problem, too.

“People who are stressed out and who are feeling more anxious, depressed… they become less effective and less productive. Employers should care a lot,” said Liza Gold, a psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University.

While talking more openly and providing employee resources about mental health can help destigmatize issues, it’s still a tough conversation to have with your boss.

Consider going to HR first

If you are suffering from depression and anxiety, industrial-organizational psychology practitioner Amy Cooper Hakim suggests going to your Human Resources department first to learn about possible accommodations.

“You need to make sure you are taking care of yourself and benefiting from whatever resources you get through your company. There are a lot of programs available and specifically designed for this.”

For example, some Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can offer professional help for workers. Many companies have increased their mental health benefits since the pandemic started, like adding free meditation apps and providing additional paid time off.

But if you have a specific ask that relates directly to your work, Cooper Hakim suggests going to your immediate supervisor. For instance, if you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed out and need a few extra days on a deadline, that is a conversation to have with your boss first.

Limit what you say

Be careful what you disclose to your manager, since once you put something out there, you can’t take it back, said Gold.

“Err on the side of just enough but not more. If you tell everyone you are having a problem with severe depression and need time off work to get medication straight, now every time you have a bad day in the future, people are going to wonder,” she said. “There can be a stigma attached to that.”

She added that even if you have a good relationship with your boss, you don’t need to provide a lot of personal information when asking for mental health days.

She suggested saying something like: I am feeling a bit burned out, I met the deadline but really struggled with it. Can I take a few days off and recharge?

“Most people can relate to that — as opposed to saying: ‘I’m so anxious, I want some time off.'”

Stay solution-focused

Bringing solutions to the conversation makes it more productive.

For instance, if the mornings are overwhelming you as you’re trying to get your kids onto their online classes, then suggest starting your workday later. “Bring something back to the employer that allows for a win for you and a win for the boss,” Miller said.

Other options can include requesting additional resources to help finish a project, a more flexible schedule or help with prioritizing tasks and deadlines to streamline your responsibilities.

Be proactive

If you know your work is suffering, chances are your boss has picked up on it too. So it’s better to bring it up before it becomes a major problem.

Gold suggested saying something like: I know I haven’t been up to my normal speed, I am going through a difficult time. Then provide a concrete way to move forward, like getting assistance through an EAP, taking time off or shifting some responsibilities.

“Adopt a problem-solving position,” said Gold. “You don’t necessarily want to start off with, ‘I am not making my deadline because I have a mental illness.'”

Be candid, but careful

Talking about mental health is important, but Cooper Hakim suggested being selective with who you share with in the office.

If you have a co-worker that you really trust, it’s tempting to be honest about what’s going on, but the workplace can be a competitive place.

“We still have to maintain a professional demeanor,” she said, adding that disclosing your struggles to a colleague could come back to bite you in the future.

She advised confiding in a trusted friend outside of the workplace instead.

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