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How to talk to your boss about your mental health

Have you ever taken a sick day because your mind rather than your body is under the weather? You’re not alone. An increasing number of workers are taking sick leave for mental health issues. But, we’re not very open about it.

According to data from the Black Dog Institute, 50 percent of managers think nobody in their organization is affected by mental health but, in the average workplace, three to four sick days are taken each month for untreated depression. Employees are more likely to lie to their boss about taking time off work if their absence is caused by mental health conditions rather than physical ailments.

“Generally speaking though, discussions around mental ill health is becoming the norm. It’s more a case that many workplaces are still playing catch up,” says Peta Sigley, the co-founder and Chief Knowledge Officer of Springfox Resilience Institute, who specializes in working with corporations.

So, how should you approach the subject of mental health with your superiors? Here, Sigley shares her insights:

Approach it Early
Don’t wait until an annual sit-down until you open up. “In the workplace, too often, difficult conversations are only addressed as part of a formal review process,” says Sigely. “Ideally you would speak to your managers before you hit a level of anxiety or depression where you’re just not coping. Chronic stress symptoms increase your likelihood of anxiety or depression. These include feeling overloaded, disengaged or withdrawn and suffering from fatigue or insomnia.”

Consider your why
“Whether you’ve been struggling to perform, you need time off, or you’d simply like to reduce stigma in the workplace, it’s important to contextualize the conversation with your manager to ensure their role is clear,” says Sigley. Before you share, preplan your approach. “You can choose to provide a fact sheet, or a letter from a health professional, or simply speak in general terms. Whatever you think will help your employer understand what you’re going through.”

Help them, help you
Generally, employers have a positive obligation to make reasonable adjustments for employees experiencing mental illness (changes to a job, which can be made to enable a worker to perform their duties more effectively). “For example, implementing a ‘no email’ policy after an agreed time to allow for staff to recover,” says Sigley. On the flip side, be vocal if your needs are minimal. “Some people choose to share simply because they no longer wish to withhold the information. If that’s the case, tell your employer it’s not likely to impact your work.”

Pass it on?
“Let your employer know if you’re comfortable with your condition being shared with the wider team and if so, by whom (them or you),” says Sigley, “Employers have a legal obligation to respect your right to privacy.” Also, extend your conversation to human resources. “Most organizations have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place where staff can get free psychological counseling. The biggest challenge is ensuring staff are comfortable enough to access the service.”

Deepen your Defense
When it comes to workplace resilience, one in-office yoga class won’t cut it! “The ideal response is that you and your manager create a clear, action plan around your mental illness,” says Peta. “Become in tune with your emotions, divide your day into manageable segments and prioritize eating right, sleeping well and exercise. It’s about addressing core issues that help people reach a state of sustainable high-performance.”