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How do I talk to my boss about mental health?’ Here are 5 smart tips

20th July 2023
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 minute read

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Feeling like you need mental health support at your job? Not sure how to bring it up with your manager? Here are some practical steps you can take.

‘Mental health matters.’

‘There’s no shame in talking about mental health.’

‘Mental health is just as important as physical health.’

You know this. You believe it. Maybe you even cheerlead it. So why does it still feel so hard to talk to your boss about your mental wellbeing?

Maybe because a lot of us still feel the need to put on a perfect and polished front at work. We often feel as if we have to leave our vulnerabilities and personal lives at the door, even if we’re working from home. After all, our culture is chock-full of toxic positivity messages about being ‘go-getting high achievers’ who can overcome anything. Yet as a result, we can sometimes feel anxious or blocked about being open about our mental health to managers and colleagues. 

Other fears can include being seen as ‘unfit’ for your role, being treated differently or even being passed over for promotion. Opening up about how we feel can feel daunting even out of work as we might fear that we’ll be judged, dismissed or misunderstood. While these fears are understandable, trying to paper over the cracks of feeling unwell at work is never a long-term solution. In fact, it can lead to performance issues, increased sick days and even a worsening of your mental health.

Another fear might be that if you disclose any mental health issues, real workplace problems might then be swept under the carpet. You might worry that ‘blame’ will then be placed on your difficulties instead. Examples might be a manager saying ‘Are you sure your workload is really too much? Maybe it’s just your anxiety?’ or ‘Are you sure your team is really being difficult? Maybe it’s just because you’re feeling depressed?’

But while these fears are real and relevant, these aren’t a reason to avoid talking to your boss. Because the longer we collectively bury mental wellness issues in the workplace, the longer it will take for things for things to change. That said, it doesn’t hurt to be smart, sensible and strategic about seeking support at work.

So if you’re feeling unsure about how to open up the conversation, then here are five tips for how to go about it:

How to Seek Support at Work

1. Prepare in advance — and decide on your aim

When talking to your manager about your mental health, it is important that you treat the issue every bit as seriously as you would a physical health issue. So arrange a private meeting with an adequate amount of time for a chat.  

If it makes you feel more comfortable, you could arrange for a member of the HR team to attend with you. And if you work for a bigger organisation, there might even be a designated mental health advocate who could attend too.

If you are able, get a hold of any supporting documentation in advance, such as a letter from your GP or a therapist (if you are seeing one). Finally, make sure that you know your rights when it comes to mental health in the workplace. This article from Mind might help.

As you know, the most successful meetings tend to have a clear goal in mind. So before speaking with your boss, reflect on what practical requests you could make to benefit your wellbeing

Some examples could be:

— Changes to your working hours, either temporarily or permanently. 

— Changes to your working area, for instance moving to a quieter section.

— Changes to your role, for instance, moving into a less stressful position.

— Spending time working from home or switching to a hybrid role.

— Being allowed to take extra breaks or take time outside. 

— Temporarily re-allocating tasks that you find stressful, difficult or overwhelming.

— Getting added support in performing your role, for instance, training or mentoring.

— Taking time off for rest and recovery.

— Getting access to any wellness courses or workshops provided by your employer.

— Getting access to therapy services provided by your employer (if you’ve never tried therapy before, here’s what to expect from your first appointment).

If it helps, you could also outline any requests for reasonable adjustments in a letter (this template from Mind might also be handy). Also, it’s worth noting that employers can sometimes get financial help to make reasonable adjustments for you at work — you can find out more via the UK government's Access to Work service.

2. Only share a much as you want to

In essence, your manager really only needs to know three key things:

— What mental health challenges you are facing.

— How they are affecting you at work.

— What could be done to support you.

You don’t need to go into a whole lot of detail about this. It is okay to retain your privacy and not share anything that you don’t feel comfortable disclosing. So you don’t have to go into the history of any issues, including how long you’ve had them or any possible causes. You also don’t have to discuss whether they have affected you in previous jobs or talk about any medication you might be taking. And you certainly don’t need to feel pressured to discuss your personal life (unless you think it would be helpful for your boss to know about any strains you are facing). And if you’ve had an official mental health diagnosis in the past then you don’t need to disclose this if you don’t want to. 

Once you’ve raised the issue, there is a small chance that your employer will ask for access to your medical records. However, if you don’t feel comfortable with this, then seek advice from a union rep or an organisation like Mind or ACAS.

3. Set any necessary boundaries

It’s possible that for the sake of your wellbeing, you might also need to set stronger boundaries at work. So aim to see this meeting as a chance to do that.

Put simply, a boundary is a limit that you set in your life and relationships. It’s about defining a line that you don’t want crossed, whether it’s with your time, energy or how people treat you.

Workplace boundaries can be around many things, including:

— Doing overtime.

— Being asked to do last minute shift cover.

— Being continuously interrupted while focusing on tasks.

— Being given unreasonable deadlines.

— Being asked to take on extra responsibilities.

— Being asked to perform tasks without the necessary training.

— Being asked to perform tasks that might harm your mental or physical wellbeing.

— Dealing with difficult customers or clients.

— Dealing with difficult colleagues or team members.

— Being asked to train or mentor team members.

Remember, boundaries are not about being rigid, inflexible or refusing to perform your role in a reasonable way. They are about outlining — calmly, politely and firmly — what your limits are, which might be different given your current mental health challenges. 

For instance, ‘Because I’m having some marital problems and I’m feeling very anxious at the moment, I’m not feeling robust enough to deal with customer complaints. This is because emotionally I’m very near my limit and I’m finding it harder to respond calmly. Is there a way that we can work around this for now whilst I’m working through this?’

4. Talk to a therapist

If you need support in balancing mental health challenges with performing your role, then talking to a psychotherapist or psychologist can help (and if you’re not sure which one is right for you then take a look at our guide to mental health professionals).

A therapist can support you in developing various coping strategies while at work, including techniques for staying calm, centered and focused. CBT, CAT and Mindfulness therapies are all good approaches for this.

Or if you feel that you are being triggered by certain people and situations in the workplace, then both Schema and Psychodynamic therapy can help you to explore any root causes of this (including Adverse Childhood Experiences). Also, both EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can help you to process any trauma symptoms — such as flashbacks, anger, shame, dissociation or panic attacks — by revisiting distressing past events safely.

Got a busy schedule or high pressure role? Then online or text therapy might be good options for you. Finally, if you’d like to speak to someone urgently before meeting with your manager, then a single-session therapy appointment could really help. 

If you do decide on therapy, you could even ask your therapist to roleplay the conversation with your boss in advance. They could help you to work out what you want to say and how you want to say it, plus get past any assertiveness blocks in expressing your needs and boundaries.

5. And don’t forget to be kind to yourself

Despite improved awareness around mental wellbeing over the past decade or so, many of us can still experience feelings of guilt and shame when we face mental health challenges. Depending on your background, you may have taken on the belief that mental health issues aren’t as serious as physical health ones, or that you should somehow just ‘pull yourself together’ at work and conceal how you’re feeling. But neither of these things are true.

The fact is that one in four of us will experience a mental health issue in our lifetime. We are all on a continuum when it comes to mental health, one that depends on our current circumstances, past experiences and window of tolerance. And even if you are the one who is struggling today, it could be one of your colleagues who is struggling in the future. That is why it’s important to be kind to yourself, take a moment to acknowledge any challenges you are having and be willing to advocate for yourself assertively in the workplace (and beyond). In fact, the earlier that you notice that there is an issue — and seek support for it — the easier it is to prevent things from escalating and having a bigger impact on your life (at home and at work). So if you notice that you’re not feeling too great, try to take steps to deal with it sooner rather than later.

Talking about mental health at work isn’t always easy, especially as different organisations offer different levels of support. But by preparing in advance, knowing your rights, setting clear boundaries, getting support from a therapist and being kind to yourself, you can make the conversation a whole lot easier. 

Remember, you have an absolute right to be supported in your mental health at work. And by taking care of your daily wellbeing, you will also be giving yourself the time and space that you need to heal.

Dealing with workplace mental health challenges? Book an in-person, online or live chat appointment with a world-class MTA therapist. Single-session appointments are also available.

How do I talk to my boss about mental health?’ Here are 5 smart tips
Clinical Director
Lumo Health team
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