If you were to look around your workplace right now, would you know who was struggling with mental health issues? I think most people’s answer would be “probably not.”

Yet, according to Mental Health America, every year over 40 million American adults experience a mental health condition. That’s 1 in 5 of the total adult population—almost 20% of the workforce in the United States. When you do the math within your own place of work, it seems surprising that the numbers are so high.

The truth is, maybe that’s because while there are sometimes visual clues to highlight when we’re going through a tough time mentally—appearing teary, withdrawn, maybe even agitated—most of the time, there is no external signal to signpost when someone is struggling. Really, the only way we can know how each of us is feeling is by talking to each other. But, for many us, our mental health can feel like a hugely private part who we are. It can seem easier to put on a facade and pretend that everything’s A-Okay—even when it’s not.

It’s understandable to think that, particularly in a work environment, admitting that you’re struggling is showing a sign of weakness. But, actually, I think it’s one of the greatest forms of strength. Showing your vulnerabilities makes you a strong person.

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Although, just as it’s hard to look and notice who might be struggling around you, does anyone else know how you’re feeling? Have you ever spoken to someone at work about your own mental health? Or, more importantly, to your boss or manager?

I’m just guessing, but I take it the reason you’re reading this, is because the answer is “no.”

Why is it hard to talk to our bosses about mental health?

The conversation about our mental health at work is getting louder. You may have heard about the tweet that went viral last year when one CEO responded in the best way imaginable to the news that one of his employees was taking a couple of days to look after her mental health.

Madalyn Parker, a Michigan-based web developer living with depression and anxiety, shared the email exchange with her boss on Twitter, where it has now been retweeted over 15,000 times. In the exchange, her boss, Ben Congleton, thanks Parker for honesty and praises her as an “example to us all.”

But many of us still don’t feel comfortable talking to our bosses about our mental health. The harsh reality is that not every boss in America (or the rest of the world for that matter) is likely to respond as positively as Parker’s boss did when she opened up about her need for a mental health day off.

Work is a massive part of our lives; we work an average of 38.6 hours per week and, when you factor in time spent commuting that’s even more of our lives we dedicate to work—even when we’re not working. And, no matter how much you love your job, we all have bad days at work. The truth is, none of us is immune from experiencing mental ill health, just as none of us is immune from physical illness.

I’m sure all of us have experienced periods of huge stress at work. Perhaps you recognize these symptoms: exhaustion, brain fog, even burnout. These feelings have a huge impact on our general sense of well-being, not only when we’re in the office, but after we leave, too. Sometimes, they can be relieved by a day off (whether that’s calling in sick or taking a mental health day) or by taking a period of annual leave.

Do you have to disclose your mental health to your boss?

Well, frankly, no. If there’s no work-related reason for you to disclose it, then you don’t have to open up about any mental challenges you are facing. If, however, your state of mind is affecting your ability to complete your work, your attitude towards it, your relationship with your coworkers or any other issue related to your work environment, then a conversation may be necessary.

According to Tanisha Ranger, PsyD, a psychologist who has helped many patients decide whether or not to bring up their mental health issues with their boss, the right decision really “depends” on the particular situation.

“If you know your boss well and have a good working relationship, I think it could really be beneficial to tell him/her about your mental illness,” says the Nevada-based therapist. “Understanding what you struggle with and how it can impact your work, can give you and your boss the opportunity to tailor your environment to optimize your chances for success.  It can also reduce the stress you might experience at work (especially that which is a result of having to hold onto that secret).  That kind of support can decrease the likelihood of experiencing negative symptoms that could negatively impact you, your work environment, your co-workers, and the business overall.”

However, if you do not know your boss well or do not have a good working relationship, telling him/her about your mental health concerns could be detrimental. “It is extremely important that you know who you work for, and what the laws are, concerning mental illness in the workplace,” Dr. Ranger stresses. “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.”

When it comes to talking about your mental health, it’s vital that you advocate for yourself, which is where the laws come in. Those who work for companies with 15 or more employees are covered under the American Disabilities Act and the company is required by law to provide reasonable accommodations if you ask.  Additionally, some companies offer mental health services, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) where you can receive a limited number of free mental health counseling sessions.

And, it really is in your employer’s interest to listen and help you; mental illness costs employers an estimated $225.8 billion each year. One of the obvious causes is due to absenteeism, or regularly missing work. But, causes that can often be overlooked include the decreased performance that occurs when we work while sick, as well as presenteeism.

What is important to recognize though, is that ongoing mental health conditions—be it depression, anxiety, or anything else—cannot be so easily resolved by taking the odd day off. It takes ongoing support, through the ups and downs. If your boss doesn’t know what you’re going through, he/she won’t be able to provide you with the support or provisions that you need.

What it all boils down to is knowing that at your boss wants you to perform to the best of your ability when you’re at work; whatever industry you’re in, whatever skill or trade you have, it makes no difference.

Why it’s important

Being upfront about your mental health helps to create an honest and open environment around you. Disclosing your struggles can actually be a great form of relief, too. In many cases, once you open up about your mental health issues you may no longer feel like you’re dealing with this alone and provisions can be put in place to help you reach a better state of mind. As awkward as it might feel to have the conversation, things can only improve. It’s illegal to be discriminated against because of your mental health, and the law also allows for you to be appropriately accommodated. You won’t be penalized for opening up.

How to do it

So, we know why it’s important to talk about our mental health at work. Now we’ll look at the steps you can take to do this.

Note: All workplaces are different. Some people may work directly with their line-manager or boss, whereas others may not come into contact with them for weeks or months at a time. When we use the term ‘boss’, think who this might translate to in your own work environment

  1. Consult others (if you can)

In the case of bullying or harassment, try speaking to a member of HR. There are often procedures in place that will support you. It might also be best to approach HR if you’re not confident enough to have the discussion with your boss or are worried about the way he/she will react.

Or, depending on your situation, you may benefit from speaking to a colleague. Having a work friend/buddy can be helpful—a person you can regularly check-in with that understands your workload and what the work environment is like. Mention to your work buddy that you are thinking of talking to your boss. Having someone to support you through the process can make it seem less daunting.

  1. Think about what you need

Think about why you’re disclosing this information in the first place—what support do you need? Hold off on telling your boss until you are clear about what you’re hoping to gain by sharing this information. If you are telling your boss because you want to have fewer responsibilities or longer deadlines, for example, consider researching your organization’s HR policies first.

Maybe you need a little flexibility with deadlines, some time off, or to cut your hours down slightly. Or, you might need to consider whether flexible hours or remote working might be a better long-term solution. Or, maybe you need to see a therapist.

It’s also OK if you’re not sure about what to do or what help you need—no one is expecting you to be an expert, especially if this is the first time you’ve experienced a mental health problem. Try to think of small changes that can be easily made.

Once you are clear about the changes you need, go to HR first and carefully document the meeting, advises attorney Matt C. Pinker, who often advises clients on workplace issues. “Other times, HR can help you put together a plan of action which you can then take to your boss,” he advises. “You do not want to be in a position where the boss could unilaterally decide to terminate you after this disclosure, and HR may be able to prevent that.”

  1. Find the right time (and place)

We can’t know for certain what our mental health will be like in the future but, if you can, try to predict a suitable day/time to bring up the topic.  Approaching your boss on a day with things are calm in the office is best.

Try to meet in a place where you’ll be able to talk in a calm and collected way. If there isn’t a quiet space within your workplace, suggest going somewhere else, or even for a walk. Walking can take the corporate feeling out of the meeting and being outside might bring a new perspective to how you’re feeling.

  1. When the time’s right, go for it

The relationship you have with your boss will determine the best way for you both to have the discussion. It might be easier for you to request a one-to-one by email, as this can allow you to book some private time away from your colleagues.

But, if your workplace (or your relationship with your boss) is less formal, and you are able to just go for a coffee and a chat, that’s fine and may be best. Talking about your mental health doesn’t need to be scary or over-complicated, you can start the conversation by simply saying, “I need to get something off my chest” or “I need to talk, do you have time to listen?” Just remember to tell your boss only what is necessary. Be clear and concise, stating the specifics of how your mental health problems are impacting your work. The point here is to keep it professional and appropriate—your boss is not a therapist or close friend, so you need to stick to what matter’s to the workplace.

  1. Take care of yourself

By having a conversation with your boss and keeping him/her in the loop about your mental health, you can start to make the changes that will benefit you. If you’re concerned about how your boss might respond to your disclosure, consider asking a friend or your therapist to role-play the conversation you anticipate having with him. That way, you’ll feel much more prepared and relaxed when the time comes. Make sure you’re taking proper care of yourself outside of work too—self-care, exercise and a balanced diet—as this can have a big impact on your overall sense of well-being.

While it can seem easier said than done, you really shouldn’t be ashamed of your mental health issues or let them prevent you from being happy and healthy in your career.

Last Updated: Apr 4, 2018