How to Talk About Your Mental Health Challenges at Work

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As many of us are faced with unprecedented challenges during a global pandemic, new or exacerbated mental health challenges may also result. If you're struggling with managing your mental health, you know it can become more difficult to keep up with work duties, among any other responsibilities on your plate.

While these aren't always easy conversations to have, it may be helpful to talk to your workplace about your struggles so that you can partner with your boss, co-workers, direct reports, or other parties to find solutions that help you feel better and take greater control of your mental health.

Should You Tell Your Workplace?

There can be a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic concerns to consider if you are contemplating talking to work about your mental health challenges.

A 2018 journal article provides a systematic review of the literature to help you understand why you may need to navigate these discussions differently depending on circumstances. Factors that impact the decision to disclose or conceal mental health challenges may include:

  • Potential stigma
  • Personal characteristics of a boss
  • Relationship with employer
  • Mental health of the employee
  • Perceptions of mental illness
  • Fears about losing control

When struggling with mental health, it can even be difficult to think clearly, so it helps to really spend time considering a proper course of action.

A 2015 study looked into how people tend to manage their mental health information at work. This research found that men, people participating in supported employment programs, recipients of disability benefits, staff with a thorough knowledge of applicable legislation, those with fewer negative experiences regarding stigma, and staff who report more severe illness were increasingly likely to disclose mental health challenges with their workplace.

Still, there are productive approaches you can take to be more open with your employer about the mental health challenges you are working through.

Talking About Your Mental Health at Work

Talking to your workplace about mental health challenges can feel particularly overwhelming, but it can also be beneficial in the long run.

A 2017 journal article based on a qualitative research study found that people with mental health concerns had to navigate the stigma of mental illness while managing their symptoms to maintain their work performance.

Given these challenges, it can be helpful to think critically about how to effectively approach discussions of your mental health in the workplace.

"For people who have made the decision to speak openly at work about mental health, planning is key." says psychotherapist Haley Neidich, LCSW. "It's important to know and rehearse not only exactly what you're comfortable disclosing, but to talk through with a trusted friend or family member what the various responses might be and how you'd like to address those."

Neidich says that the best approach can often be a direct one, wherein you are not overly emotional and share only relevant information. It may help to tailor your discussion to your audience. Here are some specific tips about how to talk to those you work closely with at your job.

Talking With Your Boss

It can feel intimidating to talk to your boss regarding challenges with mental health, especially when so many people rely on their jobs for an income to survive.

This insight aligns well with the evidence from a 2020 journal article based on focus groups with people with mental health concerns human resources practitioners, employers, accommodations professionals, and advocates.

This research found that people benefitted from considering who they should share their mental health challenges with, as well as the content, timing, and communication style used in their disclosure.

While it may not be something you usually bring up in an interview for a new role, Neidich recommends that being clear about the type of support you need to do your best job can demonstrate commitment once settled into the role.

Speaking With Your Direct Reports

When speaking with the employees you supervise directly, it can be useful to think about exactly what they need to know to complete their responsibilities and how your mental health may impact them.

"Maintain professionalism by being brief, to the point, and clear about exactly what your request or concern is," Neidich says. There's no need to amplify your experience or be overly emotional in order to get others to understand.

If anything, being open with those that report to you may just encourage more dialogue about your team's mental health and foster a healthier working relationship.

Navigating Discussions With Your Co-Workers

While colleagues may not need to know about your mental health challenges to do their jobs well, sharing concerns may yield much-needed support.

"I think that more people should be speaking openly in the workplace about their mental health issues, but there's not any guidance on specifically how to do this" Neidich says. Due to this lack of guidance, it's normal to feel nervous when thinking about talking to work about your struggles.

Dos and Don'ts

It may help to keep these actionable recommendations in mind when navigating discussions about your mental health challenges in the workplace.

Do

  • Be direct and rehearse what you're going to say ahead of time.
  • Be clear with your boss by asking if they feel that anyone else needs to know. For example, some may only request that human resources is also made aware to provide any additional necessary support. 
  • Have a clear list of the accommodations that you need in order to manage both work responsibilities and your personal life. 

Neidich recommends verbalizing your motivation and dedication to your job. "Make it clear to your boss that you take your job seriously and enlist their help in problem-solving how to get you back to a place where you're feeling comfortable and confident with your responsibilities," she says.

Don't

  • Share any information that your workplace does not need to know.
  • Complain about work. Demonstrate that you are committed to your job and that being distracted due to your mental health has been challenging and you want to address any issues and make a plan. 
  • Assume you know how your boss is going to react. Sometimes people can surprise you when you get vulnerable about what you need. 

A Word From Verywell

As you can see from the research and recommendations, there are reasons people hesitate to talk about their mental health in the workplace. Should you feel comfortable making this disclosure, planning ahead may be beneficial, as may getting support from friends, family members, or co-workers that you trust.

Regardless of what you decide is the best option for your needs at this time, it can help to develop a plan for how to manage your mental health challenges in the workplace. While certain decisions may make sense in one setting at one time, you may want to reassess your needs in the future.

It can also be helpful to be sure you're caring for your mental health outside of work hours, by creating boundaries between work and your personal life, prioritizing self-care, and seeking professional help as needed. If you see a therapist, they may also be able to help you plan what and how to disclose your mental health issues at work.

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