Ever come down with the flu, or break a bone on a ski trip? Chances are, you can count on your boss and your coworkers to rally around with sympathetic emails, flowers, or a pot of chicken soup. What’s more: Your boss wants to help you get better quickly—and get back to the office.
But what if you’re struggling with a spike in your depression symptoms, or an anxiety attack comes from out of the blue? You may be a little less inclined to share.
“There’s still a stigma about mental health in the workplace,” says David Ballard, Psy.D., director of the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace program. “Mental health and physical health are treated very differently. When people were asked, in a survey, if they’d feel comfortable telling their boss about a mental health problem, more than half said they would not.”
Why is this? More than one in three workers are concerned about retaliation or being fired if they seek mental health care, according to the American Psychiatric Association. “People are often worried about repercussions,” says Dr. Ballard. “They fear it might get in the way of promotions or getting a good job assignment, or they’re afraid of being bullied or ostracized. So they go to great lengths to hide their problems. This just piles on the stress and makes the issue even worse.”
That’s unfortunate for a lot of reasons. For one, it could be a bad business practice for employers. Especially when you consider that for every dollar a company invests in improving the mental health care of their employees, they see a four-dollar return in improved health and productivity.
Employees see the biggest benefit of all. “People who work for companies that provide for mental health care are more likely to report higher levels of job satisfaction,” says Dr. Ballard. “They do a better job, they feel more motivated, they report less stress, and they’re less likely to say they plan to leave the company in the next year.”
How to Cope With Mental Health Symptoms on the Job
If you struggle to deal with the challenges that a mental health condition presents while holding down a job, know that you are not alone. A quarter of the American workforce experiences mental health symptoms at any given time.
In fact, work can be an important part of your self-care routine and mental health strategy. “Going to work is one of the best treatments for depression and other mental health issues,” says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Annville, Pennsylvania.
When should you tell your boss and your coworkers about your struggles—and how should you approach the conversation? Ask yourself these four questions to help you figure it all out.
- Why am I sharing this information?
Think about how your mental health condition really affects your job. “Don’t be ashamed of your diagnosis,” says Dr. Smedley. “But be aware that any information you share may not be received the way you want it to be. If your problem isn’t work-related, you don’t have to disclose anything. Ask yourself these questions first: What is the purpose of sharing? Is my condition impairing my work performance? Do my boss and coworkers need to know? How much do they need to know? Be really thoughtful about your decision to share.”
- What do I hope to accomplish?
If you have depression and you’re having a tough time getting out of bed in the morning, would a more flexible schedule help? If you’re feeling anxious and unable to make your way through big projects, could breaking them down into smaller tasks be the answer? Do you need a mental health day every now and then while you cope with a spike in your symptoms? Would you like to speak with the human resources department about making accommodations?
Think about solutions in practical terms. “You don’t want to lower expectations or do less work,” says Dr. Ballard. “You want to create the conditions that will help you do well and perform effectively. Approach your conversation from that perspective.”
- Am I prepared?
Don’t stress out about speaking to your boss—but do be prepared. “If you’re already seeing a therapist,” says Dr. Ballard, “they can help you think through the best approach. You can work with your therapist to strategize and rehearse exactly what you’d like to say. It can be a stressful situation and you don’t want to feel overwhelmed.”
Or walk through the conversation with a trusted friend or family member. That can help make you a more confident—and effective—communicator.
- Can I speak briefly and unemotionally?
When it comes to sharing mental health concerns with your boss, less is more. “Be focused and brief,” advises Dr. Smedley.
Target your conversation to ways that your condition may be affecting your work—and avoid talking about your entire medical history. “Don’t overexplain. Let your boss know that you’re addressing the issue as much as you can and set an estimated timeline. You can’t promise to fix everything in a week or two, so set reasonable expectations. It can be scary for your boss if you’ll have to miss a lot of work.” So put his or her mind at ease.
Try to stay calm and professional, advises Dr. Ballard. “Don’t approach the conversation as a therapy session,” he says. “You’re not dumping your problems on your boss. You’re simply sharing what you need [to,] so that you’re able to be successful on the job.”
By talking to your employer about your challenges, you may be surprised at the amount of support you receive, and how unburdening yourself relieves any pressures you may feel.