Mental health challenges are something many of us will experience at one time or another. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 adults in America experience mental health conditions each year. With 63% of American adults part of the workforce, mental health at work is an issue that needs care and attention. Still, many of us hesitate to bring mental health up at work, or feel unsure about navigating the “how to talk to your boss about your mental health” conversation.
Rest assured, there are ways to address your mental health struggles at work without risking your dignity — or your job. Opening up about your mental health at work is important, and can be an empowering experience.
Should You Tell Your Boss About Your Mental Health?
There is a stigma attached to talking about mental health, and many of us fear seeming weak or incompetent. At work, we may worry that opening up and asking for accommodations — such as mental health days, or more flexible work schedules — will put our jobs at risk.
But talking about our mental health at work isn’t something we can put on the back burner. As the CDC reports, unaddressed mental health issues can affect our performance at work, our ability to engage and communicate with others, and even our physical ability to accomplish tasks. Additionally, mental health conditions like depression are linked to increased rates of disability and unemployment.
Normalizing the Conversation
The good news is that talking about mental health at work has become more common in the past few years, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a study cited by the American Psychological Association (APA), during the pandemic, two-thirds of workers experienced mental health challenges that affected their job performance, and 40% experienced burnout. Now more than ever, employers are being trained to recognize signs of mental health conditions, and are offering benefits such as counseling services and mental health days at work.
How to Talk About Your Mental Health
Even though the conversations around mental health are changing and many workplaces are becoming more accommodating, many of us feel uncomfortable talking to our bosses about mental health.
This is understandable! Talking about difficult feelings is challenging in the first place, and many of us consider our mental health to be a private matter. Having to talk to someone in a position of authority can be even more uncomfortable. We may also feel that sharing something vulnerable about ourselves makes us look weak or exposed. Some employers may still be stuck in old modes of thinking and resist being mindful of mental health.
If you are feeling scared or unsure about how to talk to your boss about your mental health, you aren’t alone. However, taking the next steps to start this conversation is actually a sign of strength, not weakness.
Do You Have to Disclose Your Mental Health to Your Boss?
You do not have to talk to your boss about your mental health at work; it’s your personal choice. But you should also know that there is a spectrum when it comes to talking about mental health at work.
For example, you don’t necessarily have to tell your boss about any mental health diagnoses that you may have, or the details of how you are feeling. It’s up to you how much you want to disclose. Sometimes simply saying, “I need a day off to manage my mental health,” or “I need to take some time to deal with some personal matters” is enough. If you don’t feel comfortable having that direct discussion about mental health or feel unsafe doing so, you can also look into using sick days or personal time off.
Why It’s Important to Talk About Your Mental Health With Your Boss
Although there is no requirement to share how you are feeling with your boss, if you don’t share what is going on with you, you may not get the help that you need, such as: time off, work-from-home accommodations, flexible schedules, or access to other company services. Additionally, if you don’t share your mental health concerns with your boss, they may not understand why you may be less productive on certain days.
Understanding the personalities and needs of one’s employees is key to making a workplace run smoothly. Employers want their employees to avoid burnout, and they want to know what they can do to ensure a cohesive, empathetic, and productive workforce.
Preparing for the Mental Health Conversation with Your Boss
Pick the right time
It’s probably best to find a quieter, less hectic moment to have this conversation with your boss. Having it in the middle of a tough work day is probably not your best bet. Approaching your boss early in the morning or when the work day is winding down might be best. Some people feel more comfortable making the first contact over email or text. This might feel more emotionally safe for you than making a cold call or opening up a conversation in person.
If you have a difficult relationship with your boss, you might consider getting advice from trusted co-workers about how they have navigated similar conversations. If you are looking for information about personal leave, flexible work hours, or counseling services covered by your employer, you should talk to your human resources manager either way.
Scripts you can use with your boss
When pondering how to talk to your boss about your mental health, it can be very helpful to have some examples. Here are a few tips, along with script ideas:
Approach #1: Be honest and direct
“Lately, I’ve been experiencing stress and burnout and would like to request time off to manage my mental health.”
Approach #2: Address your company’s needs
“I’ve been struggling lately with personal stress. I know I’ve been distracted and unfocused at work as a result. I need a few personal days to tend to my mental health, so I can come back refreshed and ready to work.”
Approach #3: Make it an ongoing conversation
“As I work on my stress, I’ll be in touch with you about what I need and how you can help. Let’s talk about a schedule of regular check-ins, and what work priorities I should keep in mind as I manage my stress.”
The law is on your side
While it’s common to feel intimidated by the idea of talking to your boss about your mental health, the law is on your side. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment.” This includes people who experience mental health conditions.
In addition, the ADA requires your place of employment to provide “reasonable accommodations” to help you manage your mental health. As the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) explains, these accommodations may include flexible work schedules, distraction-free work areas, work-from-home options, written directions/task lists, regular feedback, and more flexible break schedules.
Mental Health Days
How to ask for a mental health day at work
We all need mental health days at work from time to time. There are several ways you can approach mental health days with your boss. You can simply say that you need to take a “personal day,” and use your allotted paid time off for this purpose. It’s your decision how much information you wish to provide. When asking for your mental health day, you can emphasize that doing so will allow you to come back to work refreshed and ready to work.
You may feel most comfortable asking for a mental health day over email or text. Either way, it’s best to ask for this a few days in advance. If you are experiencing a heightened mental health crisis, however, that might not be possible. Just be honest and direct with your boss as you navigate this conversation.
What to do on a mental health day
Mental health days are different from taking a “personal day,” where you take care of personal business, such as doctor’s appointments, visits to the DMV, or attending family events like weddings, funerals, or graduations.
Your mental health day should be specifically geared toward managing your stress. Beforehand, you can make a list of the things that you know help when you’re feeling stressed or burned out, such as catching up on sleep, exercising, talking to your therapist, meditating, or journaling. You can think of mental health days as an opportunity to get away from the grind of work — to quiet your mind and body.
Find more tips on what to do on a mental health day:
When to take a mental health day
Most of us experience some levels of stress sometimes, but how do you know when this stress indicates that it’s time to take a mental health day? When your stress levels are high or when you are experiencing burnout, you may have trouble sleeping, concentrating, and completing tasks. You may experience headaches or digestive problems. Common mental health conditions that may affect your work life include depression and anxiety — when these conditions are exacerbated, you may find it hard to complete your work or meet your deadlines.
Where To Go From Here
Figuring out how to talk to your boss about your mental health can feel stressful in itself. It’s common to feel this way at first. But we all struggle with stress, burnout, and mental health challenges at times. You deserve the time and space to manage your mental health, so that you can continue to thrive as an employee and as a person.