For five years I worked in an office environment that strained and negatively affected my mental health. I have a history of depression, and would often need to take a day off work to care for myself and my mental wellness. After years of telling my boss I was sick whenever I needed a mental health day, I started to see myself as a sickly, unwell person. It was stressful having to consistently come up with new fake physical symptoms to fill out my sick day stories, and this stress didn’t help my mental health. Each time I took a day off work to care for my mental health or because I was mentally unwell, I was actually doing something positive for myself, but because I couldn’t talk about it openly at work, it ended up feeling negative.
Mental illness is prevalent in our society, and yet most people still don’t feel they can have open conversations with their bosses and colleagues about it. And, furthermore, we all need to care for our mental health, whether or not we have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Becky Wright, writing for Psychcom, says, “I’m sure all of us have experienced periods of huge stress at work [and] exhaustion, brain fog, even burnout, [which have] a huge impact on our general sense of well-being…Sometimes, they can be relieved by a day off (whether that’s calling in sick or taking a mental health day).”
Here are some tips on how to have a productive conversation with your boss about your mental health.
1. Consider what you want to ask for.
What do you need from your employer, colleagues, and work environment to help manage your mental illness and/or mental health? For example, maybe you need to be able to take frequent walks throughout the day, or maybe you need for your boss to give you feedback in a certain way. Perhaps you need time off work to see a therapist, or the ability to sometimes work from home. Knowing what you specifically need and are asking for will help both you and your employer during the conversation.
“Have a goal in mind,” says Katherine Glick, licensed professional counselor, certified holistic health coach, and therapist at Talkspace. “Think about why you are disclosing this to your boss.”
2. Do your research, including talking to others.
Tanisha Ranger, PsyD, is a psychologist who has helped many patients decide whether or not to bring up their mental health issues with their boss. She says, “It is extremely important that you know who you work for, and what the laws are, concerning mental illness in the workplace…In some instances, it may be in your best interest to just make sure to have the appropriate Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) paperwork on file with the HR (human resources) department (who are legally required to protect your private health information) so that you can be absent from work when you absolutely need to be. There may be ways to tailor your environment that do not require you to disclose your diagnoses.”
Wright also explains that for those of us who work for companies with 15 or more employees, the American Disabilities Act requires the company to provide reasonable accommodations if you ask for them and so, in that case, advocating for yourself and your needs is important.
Make sure that you’re well-informed about your rights when entering this conversation. It may be useful to first talk to a friend who has gone through a similar process, or a colleague who you trust, or an HR representative. Gather the information and support that you need to feel confident when approaching your boss.
3. Prepare what you want to say ahead of time.
It’s important to remember that you have a right to your privacy and only need to reveal as much information as you want to share. Mental Health Works shares suggestions for language you can use, as well as a script that you can use as a starting point for your own conversation:
When deciding how to describe your mental health need or mental illness you can use:
- General terms—a disability, a medical condition, an illness
- Vague but more specific terms—a biochemical imbalance, a neurological problem, a brain disorder
- Specifically referring to mental illness—a mental illness, a mental health problem, a mental disorder, a psychiatric disorder, a psychiatric disability, an anxiety disorder
- Your diagnosis—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, panic disorder
“I have (preferred term for psychiatric condition or disability) that I am recovering from. I can still do the things that are required by my job (or if there are limitations, I may have difficulty doing a specific part of my job). It helps if I have (name the specific accommodations you need). I work best when (other accommodations).”
You could also add the following information: “Sometimes you might see (symptoms or behaviors associated with symptoms). When you see that, you can (name the action steps for the employer). If you are concerned about me, you can call (contact name: your spouse/partner, advocate, therapist, or someone else you trust to help you).”
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?” Emma Flynn, writing for Bustle, suggests that it may be easier to have someone else, such as your general practitioner, write a letter to your boss explaining your condition and your needs for you.
4. Prepare for success.
Take good care of yourself and give yourself the conditions that you know you need in order to have good conversations. Flynn writes, “Try not to catastrophize 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.”