Conversations at work about mental health are happening more often—though starting one with your manager can still feel like a risk, and a positive outcome is not guaranteed. We asked workers who have opened up about their mental health if it was worth it.
Five months ago it became clear to Susannah Scheller that she needed to talk to her boss about her mental health. Scheller, a technology director from San Antonio, Texas, felt her depression had escalated to the point that it was having an impact on her work, but starting the conversation wasn’t easy. “Honestly, I was a little bit terrified. It was getting so bad and nothing was going to improve anytime soon, so I needed to be honest with my employer, but I wasn’t sure what would happen afterwards,” Scheller says.
In the US, 87% of employers reported an increase in staff starting conversations about their mental health in 2021—hardly surprising in the context of a health crisis that has caused severe disruption to so much of our lives. While discussions may be more open, the outcomes for many are variable. One study found that, of the 65% of workers in the US who had tried to talk about their mental health in 2021, only half got a “helpful” response.
Ashley Carr, from Birmingham, Alabama, was similarly anxious about bringing up her mental-health struggles with her boss. “There is a lot of negative stigma with mental health, and I didn’t want to be judged or treated differently,” she says. She worried that saying she had social anxiety would make her bosses doubt her ability in a retail job that involved talking to many people. “At the time I wanted to keep my job as I needed the money. I didn’t want them to let me go,” she says. At the same time, she had PTSD, which could cause her to experience panic attacks at work, so she felt she owed her boss an explanation.
“The average employee is rightfully terrified that their manager will no longer see them to be the same person and, even worse, see them as professionally incapable (if they talk about their mental health),” says Melissa Doman, an organizational psychologist, former mental-health therapist and author of Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work: Here’s Why (and How to Do It Really Well). “People generally don’t look at many diagnoses as a strength, and employees don’t want to share with their managers because they don’t want professional consequences.”
As well as worries about work being taken away, or individuals being seen as less able, employees also fear being socially ostracised. In the US 70% of employees still feel that stigma around mental health exists in their workplace. Plus, there is the discomfort of having to share something so personal in a professional space. “I wish I didn’t have to explain my mental-health issue,” says Carr. “It’s a private thing that I didn’t want others to know about.”
Taking the risk
For an employee who chooses to speak up about their mental health, company culture, the resources available and the manager themselves can all impact the outcome of the conversation. “Managers are human beings first. They’re fallible creatures like the rest of us,” says Doman. Many have had no training on how to react to this kind of information and may not be particularly well informed on mental-health conditions. This can lead to awkwardness if they are faced with a situation in which they don’t know what to do, or are fearful of saying the wrong thing. It can also mean they are unsure about how to share information with other members of the workforce.
“The person asking for help should get validation for their courage in bringing it up,” Doman says. “But these conversations don’t always go well. In fact, sometimes they go quite poorly.”
Will Kesselman, from New York, works for a government body investigating serious instances of maltreatment against children and adults. In a high-pressure job in which he often has to deal with distressing circumstances, stress is a given. When he reported concerns about his mental health to his managers 12 months ago, the initial outcome seemed positive. He was immediately referred to an assistance program for counseling. But shortly after, he says, “rumors started to go around.”
He doesn’t think that information about his mental health was necessarily shared maliciously, but it has still had an impact. “You don’t want to be labeled as having a mental-health issue,” he says. “It has affected my status in my job. I’m not getting the best assignments, like I was before.”
To cap it all, the assistance program he was referred to didn’t accept his insurance, so he couldn’t access counseling that way. But it’s the feeling he’s being judged at work that is the hardest to deal with. “The social stigma means it wasn’t worth having the conversation,” he says.
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A show of support
Carr had more luck. Her boss was especially understanding when it came to her social anxiety and started to implement changes to make her more comfortable at work. “Whenever I felt very anxious or upset and let my manager know, they would always speak to me privately and ask if there was anything they could do.” This meant that if Carr had to do a presentation, her boss would arrange for fewer people to be in the room, in order to reduce her stress levels. “They seemed to be more understanding of my reactions to certain situations and tasks, and tried to accommodate me while keeping it fair,” she says.
Scheller was also surprised by how supportive her boss was. During a weekly one-on-one meeting, her boss asked if everything was OK and she seized the moment. “I just broke down and cried, and I told her what was going on. I literally couldn’t get out of bed some days.”
When asked how the company could help, Scheller didn’t know how to respond. Then her boss suggested she start seeing a therapist. When Scheller didn’t follow it up, her boss made a remarkable offer. “She was, like, ‘You need help and you’re not financially able to get it yourself, so I’m going to pay for your first month of therapy and you’re going to go this week.’”
The impact was so great that Scheller carried on seeing the therapist, paying for her own sessions after the first month. She even felt strong enough to seek support from her colleagues during a monthly meeting. “The first thing that we do in the team meeting is talk about where we’re at with our headspace. I said I was realising that what I thought was thinking clearly was actually what most people see as just survival mode.”
Her boss also changed her hours to help reduce her stress levels. As a result, she says, “my work life has gotten so much better. I can think more clearly, and I’m so much more productive.”
Learn more about: Relation with your manager
An ongoing process
While most managers will not be able to make such a generous offer to their employees, other resources may be well received. “It could even be as simple as referring someone to an online community support platform,” Doman says.
“People tend to appreciate if the manager tries to help find something even if resources aren’t available internally. It shows that they care.”
There are things employees can do to help stack the deck in their favor when starting a conversation at work about their mental health.
First, accept that the initial conversation will probably be the first of many. It is likely that both you and your manager will be on a learning curve. This can take time. Ideally, follow-up conversations will be “an opportunity to course-correct, realign your relationship and build some rapport,” Doman says. If you feel unsupported by your manager, follow-ups may have to be with HR or more senior figures.
Second, have a clear idea of what you want from the conversation. “If you just disclose, without doing any prep work, there are a lot of opportunities for things to go off the rails,” Doman says. She suggests that you ask yourself four questions: “Why do you want to share this information? Who do you want to share it with? What do you want them to do with it? What don’t you want to happen? Make all of that clear upfront, so there is zero confusion.”
“People want to be accepted and heard and understood,” she says. “These are all basic human needs. When they are being met, it means you can come as the imperfect human you are.”
Sharing information about our mental health with a manager may feel fraught with risk, but the rewards can be significant. Employees who find that their managers and colleagues are supportive gain what Doman describes as “psychological safety to the max.”
*Name has been changed
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
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