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How to Talk About Your Mental Health with Your Employer

Kelly Greenwood (Harvard Business Review)

08/04/2021

Summary.   

Up to 80% of people will experience a diagnosable mental health condition over the course of their lifetime, whether they know it or not. The prevalence of symptoms is the same from the C-suite to individual contributors, but almost 60% of employees have never spoken to anyone at work about their mental health status. Even though managers, direct reports, and colleagues have been more vulnerable than ever due to shared societal challenges and the blurring of the personal and professional during the past 18 months, the effects of stigma can still loom large. The author presents four strategies for disclosing your own mental health challenges at work.

By the time I disclosed my generalized anxiety disorder at work, it was too late. It had spiraled into debilitating depression and I could no longer even craft a basic email, much less do the rigorous job I was hired for. My previously high performance had very noticeably suffered, compelling me to nervously share the truth and ultimately forcing me out on a leave of absence.

In retrospect, a simple accommodation early on likely could’ve prevented all of that, saving me tremendous personal turmoil and my organization the extra workload.

What I didn’t know then is that up to 80% of people will experience a diagnosable mental health condition over the course of their lifetime, whether they know it or not. The prevalence of symptoms is the same from the C-suite to individual contributors, but almost 60% of employees have never spoken to anyone at work about their mental health status. Many high performers, including anxious achievers like myself, have strengths that often result from these challenges. I was not nearly as alone as I thought.

Mental health is a spectrum that we all go back and forth on, just like physical health. Most of us fluctuate between stress, burnout, and diagnosable conditions like depression or anxiety depending on what’s happening in our lives. While it may feel harder to disclose bipolar disorder than burnout, everyone should be able to relate on some level.

This has never been more true than it has been over the last 18 months, between the stressors of the pandemicracial trauma, and more. Managers, direct reports, and colleagues have been more vulnerable and authentic than ever due to shared societal challenges and the blurring of the personal and professional with remote work. We’ve also benefited from the courage of Simone BilesNaomi Osaka, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Not only did they choose to share their mental health challenges on a public stage, but they also made difficult decisions that put their well-being first.

That said, the effects of stigma can still loom large. My self-stigma told me that I was weak and should be ashamed of my anxiety and depression. Societal stigma told me that I would be judged and that professional repercussions would follow if I disclosed. However, since I widely disclosed my condition in recent years, none of those things have happened. As a result of my experiences, I founded Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit that focuses on changing the culture of workplace mental health. Here’s what we recommend if you’re considering disclosing a mental health challenge at work.

Understanding: Self-reflect

First, consider what you’re experiencing and what the impact is — on your work performance, demeanor, and other factors. What is the duration of the impact? Is it a short blip that will go away in a few days, a longer but episodic challenge, or a chronic condition? Think through what caused your symptoms if they aren’t always present. Was it work related, something in your personal life, or a macro stressor?

For me, these elements were clear with minimal self-reflection. I had started a new job with a short-staffed team several months prior. I was unable to do everything asked of me for the first time in my life. On top of that, I had gone off my anxiety medication and was unable to see my therapist regularly because of my new commute. Given everything, I should have been seeing her more often. I had gone from being a high-performing, cheerful colleague to a far from competent, aloof individual. It didn’t take much for me to put it all together. That said, others may have more complicated narratives that would benefit from discussion with family, friends, or a therapist.

Deciding: Consider the context and resources

I wish that I’d decided to share enough to get an accommodation right off the bat, or that my organization had promoted flexibility so that I wouldn’t even need one. All I needed from my employer was permission to see my therapist during the workday, which was tricky given my long commute. This would have meant coming in late once a week or working from home on Fridays, the latter of which was permitted for employees only after their first six months. However, given my own self-stigma and unfounded fear of what my manager might think, I didn’t pursue this simple accommodation. I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out if I’d attributed my need to leave the office to a physical health requirement like a weekly allergy shot.

At the time, workplace mental health wasn’t on anyone’s radar. No one talked about it openly or had trainings on how to navigate it at work. Now, there are more likely to be indicators of whether your company, HR team, or manager support mental health.

First, consider your company’s culture. Have leaders spoken about mental health? Does your company offer workplace mental health trainings? Is there a mental health employee resource group (ERG)?

Next, think about whether your manager is a safe, supportive person for you. Have they talked about their own mental health or shared other personal challenges? This level of authenticity builds trust and can be telling. Consider whether your manager has modeled mentally healthy behaviors — even regular exercise, sleep, and vacation. This can help you decide who to share with and how much to disclose.

Then, educate yourself about the protections and benefits you’re legally entitled to as an employee. In the United States, for example, businesses with 15 or more employees are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations. Resources and legal protections vary by region, so check your local regulations if possible. This way, you can advocate for yourself if your manager or HR falls short.

Read more

    Company Culture
    Leadership
    Mental Health
    Inclusion

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