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How to talk to your boss about your mental health

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How to talk to your boss about your mental health

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Mental health belongs to everyone; no one exists without it. Mental health can be strained when there is increased stress, when underlying mental health issues are not being addressed, and many other reasons. This stress often impacts our day-to-day lives, including the ability to do our jobs.

Reduced productivity, missed work, or behaviour changes can become risks to job security. Any changes in work performance should be a signal that it is time to discuss the situation with your employer.

Nora Jenkins Townson, Founder of Bright + Early, a modern HR consulting firm that specializes in working with startups tells us, “an employer has the legal responsibility to accommodate mental health conditions as long as they are disclosed, and they don't cause the business undue hardship.”

Disclosing this information might seem like an impossible task. The good news is the stigma around mental health is changing—65% of managers said their jobs would be easier if they had more insight into employees’ mental health. 

Townson says employers can encourage this de-stigmatization by “discussing mental health in the workplace or normalizing it. This environment of psychological safety can help people come forward earlier and get the help they need, and allow businesses to plan around that.” 

But, even under the best workplace conditions, employees should still be proactive about discussing mental health as well. Arunie Saldhi, a Master's in Counselling Psychology candidate who specializes in mental health in the workplace says, “we never really know what’s going on with our colleagues unless they tell us, or we see a difference in their work.” She suggests bringing up concerns with your manager before they notice a change in your performance, saying “it allows you to have a bit more control over the conversation; you’re not sharing any information that you don’t want to share.”

Having constructive mental health conversations can better equip your manager to adjust workplace conditions like deadlines, workload, and responsibilities to set you up for success. It can also open up new channels of communication and understanding and improve your job satisfaction overall. 

Steps for talking to your manager about mental health

Mental health isn’t static, it fluctuates. If your mental health is not impacting your work (the piece that you and your employer are responsible for) you don’t have to disclose what’s going on outside of work. 

Saldhi says this is why proactive communication becomes so important. Regular one-on-one meetings (don’t skip them!) keeps the lines of communication open and helps employees and their managers build a healthy rapport that benefits everyone. Some workplace challenges could be managed during one-on-ones and may not need additional accommodation. 

But, when your work is being impacted regularly because of your mental health, it’s time to bring these concerns forward. Both Townson and Saldhi advise preparing for the conversation and deciding ahead of time what you’re seeking.

1. Plan what you’re going to say

Preparing in advance will quell any pre-meeting jitters, and ensure you cover everything you’d like to discuss. It’ll also help ensure you’re only sharing as much as needed to frame how your work is impacted, what your current limitations are and what you need for support. 

Townson’s guidance for employees is to “think about what your goals are for the conversation. Are you just letting your boss know that you don't feel your best this week, or are you asking for time off or accommodations? If so, which accommodations might you need? Everyone is different, and it's up to you to request what is going to work for you.”

Saldhi adds, “ask for what you need; you have a right to ask for accommodations.” This is not about making a list of demands, it’s about clarity. Saldhi says, “no one is a mind reader, including your manager. They won't instinctively know what you need and don't know the extent of what you are going through, so don't leave the onus on them.”

Here is a quick checklist of talking points to prepare: 

  • Decide how you’ll describe your mental health concerns and how much information is relevant to your work performance
  • Identify any major stress points around your role and responsibilities, and how these impact your mental health
  • Clarify if something outside of your control is impacting your work, like if the environment triggers anxiety (lots of noise, interruptions, etc.)
  • Have examples ready for how you’ve managed your work successfully so far (coping strategies, etc.)
  • Define what changes or accommodations will help you succeed at work
  • Have a list of your strengths and contributions you make to the organization, reminding you both of what you’re capable of

Remember that this is a conversation. You can expect to work with your manager to develop measures that work for you both. 

2. Rehearse the conversation

After collecting the points you’d like to touch upon during your conversation, rehearse it with someone you trust—a close friend or your therapist

Try speaking in front of a mirror, observing your own facial expressions and body language. When we’re nervous about a conversation, we sometimes imagine our bodies and faces are undermining us (shaky hands, sweating, slouching). Practicing helps avoid these unwanted body reactions. You’ll be less likely to draw a blank or lose track of what you’re saying during the actual meeting.

You can bring your notes with you to the meeting to keep you on track.

3. Check in with HR (if needed)

If you expect your manager will not be receptive to this conversation or you’re simply uncomfortable bringing this to your manager, check in with HR. They can offer suggestions or guidance such as:

  • Helping you hone in on key points relevant to work, without oversharing
  • Describing any training managers have received on handling these conversations
  • Informing you of your company’s policies and best practices regarding mental health in the workplace
  • Identifying mental health coverage provided by your benefits package
  • Documenting that you are approaching your manager to discuss your mental health and how it relates to your performance at work

If your situation is very serious, HR may be your only stop. You may need to provide a doctor’s note (or a note from a medical professional) to request stress leave, short-term or long-term disability leave through HR. 

4. Schedule a meeting with your manager

When booking a one-on-one meeting with your manager, try to find a time that isn’t wedged between other meetings; it’s best to make sure neither you nor your manager are in a rush.

It’s up to you to decide how much you’d like to disclose about the meeting in advance. You may wish to state explicitly that you want to discuss your mental health and work, or you may simply frame the meeting as your regular check-in. 

5. Document the meeting with your manager

Take notes during your meeting. Documenting this meeting keeps you and your manager accountable to your plan, and it prevents any diminishment of your feelings; it solidifies that it was an important conversation. It keeps the conversation official and, therefore, confidential.

If they ask you questions and you’re unsure of the answer, write those down. You’re allowed to follow up with answers later.

6. Create a follow-up plan

Give your manager time to digest this information and suggest a follow-up on before changes are made. Set a date when you will meet again to assess progress.

The follow-up is an opportunity to go over goals and tasks assigned during the initial meeting with your manager and to make sure that measurable, relevant changes are being made.

On the employer’s part, this could mean communicating a reduction in workload, confirming extended deadlines, or opening up the opportunity to take off mental health days as needed. On the employee’s part, it could mean tracking whether or not your accommodations are having a positive impact on your mental health.

“A follow-up creates accountability for both parties, therefore it’s less stressful for the employee,” Saldhi says. “It allows you to see the next steps, which can provide hope and peace of mind.”

7. Continue the conversation going forward 

It’s all too easy to have a chat with your manager about mental health, walk away from the meeting with a sense of achievement and never discuss it again.

Regular one-on-one meetings with your manager give you the chance to check in often, share any new developments and how the changes have positively impacted your work and your mental health. You can communicate new successes and demonstrate your ongoing contributions to your role and the company.

Like physical health, mental health is a part of being human. Maintaining an open dialogue can help your organization better understand how to support all of their workers, create a psychologically and physically healthy workplace, and even create new company-wide policies affecting mental health. 

Many workplace benefits packages include coverage for visits to therapists. Not all of them are easy to navigate. Our guide to understanding mental health benefits helps you take advantage of all your benefits package has to offer.

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