It’s “best to focus on the impact it’s having on your work,” Dr. David Ballard tells Moneyish
Sometimes it’s way more than a case of the Mondays.
Men are twice as likely to have mental health issues stemming from their job than from non-work-related factors, according to a recent study from the British charity Mind of 15,000 workers from 30 companies. The survey also found just 31% of men felt their workplace made it possible to be candid about mental health. Only 29% said they’d taken time off for mental health. (Meanwhile, 38% of women felt they could speak openly and 43% said they’d taken mental health days.)
Americans’ mental health struggles on the job are well documented, too: 18% percent of workers in a 2017 American Psychological Association survey said mental health issues had made work challenges harder to handle in the past month, 15% said they’d had kept them from achieving work goals, and more than a third suffered from chronic job stress.
The APA’s 2015 survey also found 4% of American workers were experiencing severe elevations in depression and anxiety-related symptoms, while another 24% reported mild to moderate elevations. Despite those numbers, only 48% in 2017 said their employer provided the necessary resources for workers’ mental health needs.
But how are you supposed to talk to a boss about mental health? We asked experts to weigh in.
First, decide if you need to tell him or her, said David Ballard, assistant executive director of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “As much as it shouldn’t matter and people should be able to go and talk about these things openly, that’s not the case in every workplace,” he told Moneyish. Your dynamic with the boss and company culture will factor into the decision, Ballard said — not to mention a good portion of stress-related issues likely won’t warrant a talk with your supervisor, added Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
You may go straight to tapping into your mental health benefits, asking about your employee assistance program and seeing if HR can connect you with more resources, Ballard said. Practice self-care like sleep, exercise, diet and spending time with family and friends.
If you feel totally unable to talk to a supervisor, visit the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a site run by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, for a free, confidential consultation on workplace accommodations. “Arm yourself with your rights … if you think it’s going to come to that,” Theresa Nguyen, vice president of policy and programs at Mental Health America, told Moneyish.
But if the talk seems like a good idea, or you feel your mental health condition is affecting your productivity or professionalism, it’s “best to focus on the impact it’s having on your work,” Ballard said. “Your boss is not your therapist, but they can be someone who can provide support so that you can continue to do your job well,” he added.
Think of the issue in terms of physical health. “And how would you approach it in that case?” Moutier told Moneyish. “You’re going to treat it as, ‘I’d like to speak with you about this health issue going on in my life, because I’ve wondered if it could be impacting my work.’” But not all bosses are “progressive and educated” on mental health issues, she acknowledged. “So by no means would we advocate for people to jeopardize their reputation or their supervisor’s view of them,” she said.
Decide how much you want to disclose. “It would be reasonable to just leave it in the category of ‘a health issue I’m dealing with and addressing … that applies to whether it’s hypertension, diabetes or depression. You’re not obliged to name your condition to your supervisor,” Moutier said. “(Employees) can be guided by their instincts in terms of whether or not it feels safe or comfortable to disclose whatever level of detail that they’re thinking of sharing.”
Know what to expect. Discuss the timeframe of your issue — chronic or temporary? A week, a month or six months? — and whether any specific informal accommodations might be helpful. “The person could just be given some more flexibility with the deadlines on their projects,” Moutier said. “They may be, of course, allowed to take certain days off to attend to their health needs for medical appointments or other ways that the person is going to address their health.”
If you’re too anxious to have the talk in the first place, review your main talking points when you’re feeling less overwhelmed and try doing it before things reach a “crisis point,” Ballard said. You could also draft an email or letter to your boss during a lower-anxiety time, suggested Nguyen — taking your time “in a place where you feel like you have more clarity of mind and more control.”
Realize your boss might be more receptive than you think. About 43.4 million people 18 and up — or 17.9% of U.S. adults — were struggling with mental illness within the past year, per the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. And 89% of U.S. adults view mental and physical health as equally important for overall health, according to a Harris Poll co-sponsored by AFSP. “It’s very possible that your supervisor has faced their own challenges … and will be quite knowledgeable and supportive,” Moutier said.
Employers need to play their part, too, said Nguyen. “If everybody from upper management to bottom management engages in a practice where they’re openly talking about their mental health problems, then it sends a message to the entire community (that) it’s OK to talk about these issues,” she told Moneyish. “The goal is to allow people to feel like they can talk about this earlier instead of waiting ’til it’s a problem.”
“An important point to hammer home is that treatment works,” Ballard added. “And not to let fear about stigma, or being viewed negatively in the workplace, get in the way of getting the help you need.”
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