Discussing Mental Health at Work: Navigating Difficult Conversations

An individual's job is often a significant aspect of their life, and it is not uncommon for mental health challenges to affect work performance, mood, and stress levels. In some instances, an employee may benefit from seeking accommodations, support, or understanding from management in a company. However, the prospect of having such a conversation at work can lead to stress or anxiety about potential stigma or rejection.

Understanding how to have an open conversation with your manager about your mental health while maintaining professionalism and respect can be the first step in receiving the support you need. For further guidance, you can consider approaching a licensed therapist.

Benefits of discussing mental health at work

According to the World Health Organization, around 15% of working-age adults were estimated to have a mental disorder at work. Whether an employee is dealing with a mental disorder or facing personal challenges such as moving, traumatic events, divorce, grief, sickness, or other difficulties, it may lead to several mental health issues.

According to the American Psychological Association, a toxic work environment can lead to illness, fear, and the desire to leave a job. Workplaces need to introduce mental health policies and provide training for management that is informed about trauma, neurodiversity, and mental health.

When employees want to report their mental health challenges to management, it can feel daunting and scary. Some may fear losing their jobs, facing judgment, or not being taken seriously. In these cases, it can be helpful to have clear steps to follow when communicating their needs professionally. If your workplace stigmatizes mental health or dismisses your attempts at communication, it may be beneficial to report these challenges to HR or consider finding a new job.

How to talk to management about mental health needs

Here are some approaches you might consider when discussing your mental health at work.

Prepare yourself in advance with the DEARMAN DBT skill

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a therapeutic approach that focuses on emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, and distress tolerance. Originally developed to support individuals with borderline personality disorder, the skills from DBT can also be beneficial in a professional environment.

The DEARMAN skill is commonly used to ask for a favor or assert boundaries professionally. Below are the steps:

  • Ask a Question to Start the Conversation: Begin by asking a question that describes the situation. For example, "Have you noticed I've been missing work more lately?" This lets the person say "yes" or "no" and helps start the discussion.
  • Share Your Feelings and Explain Why It Matters: Discuss how you feel and why this situation is important without assuming they already know.
  • Make a Clear Request: Clearly state what you need. For example, "I'm going through a tough time right now, and I need to ask if I can take this week off to deal with it."
  • Offer Positive Consequences: Mention any positive things you'll do in return. For example, "I'll work extra hours when I come back," or "If there are any projects I can do from home, I can spend a few hours on them each day."
  • Be mindful. Watch the other person's body language and let them finish speaking without interrupting. Keep your goals in mind and stick to them without backing down.
  • To look confident, speak calmly, stand or sit up straight, and make eye contact.
  • If you need to negotiate, be ready to offer something in return. For example, you could say, "I can cover some shifts for others who need time off later."

If someone keeps refusing your request, you may have to decide whether to continue, accept the situation, or leave the job. Consider whether your decision matches your values and mental health needs. If your job is causing you a lot of distress, think about other options.

Understand your work-life balance boundaries

Everyone has unique boundaries at work that are related to their personal and professional lives. You may have situations in your personal life that impact how you behave at work. Consider the following areas of your life and how important they are to you in comparison to your workplace performance:

  • Life transitions, such as marriage or having a child
  • Maternity or paternity leave
  • Therapy and mental healthcare
  • Quality time with family, friends, or a partner
  • Workplace benefits
  • Personal health needs
  • Life difficulties, such as bereavement or divorce

Ask yourself which areas are negatively impacted by your workplace stress. When speaking with management, it may be beneficial to emphasize the values behind your request for accommodation or support.

Use professional and empathetic language

When you approach your manager, request a formal appointment, such as a Zoom call, to discuss your needs. Let them know beforehand what you want to discuss.

During the meeting, use professional language, such as "I" statements. Try not to directly blame your manager or workplace for your mental health struggles. If you are concerned about a policy or communication, address it as a problem that might be solved as a team.

Communicate openly

When communicating with management, it's essential to be honest and direct. Don't hold back any necessary information, such as specific boundaries related to your time, energy, and mental health. It's also best to communicate before or when a challenge arises rather than after the fact.

Support options

Dealing with stress and mental health at work can be challenging, but there are support options that extend beyond the workplace. In-person therapy may not always be feasible due to work schedules, time constraints, or financial reasons. This is where the convenience of online therapy, such as that offered by Omni Help, comes into play. Online therapy can help with burnout, which is a common result of long-term stress, depression, and other mental health issues.

Final words

Millions of Americans may experience workplace stress and mental illness, which can affect their job performance and overall job satisfaction, regardless of their intentions. Therefore, companies need to implement supportive mental health policies and systems for their employees. Additionally, employees can take proactive steps to communicate their boundaries at work and seek help when needed. It may be beneficial to reach out to a licensed therapist online or in your local area for guidance in this process.