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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Here's How to Have an Honest Talk With Your Boss About Your Mental Health

man having a difficult time at work

A close friend of mine suffers from panic attacks. While he generally knows how to keep them at bay, they’re sometimes unpreventable. Before a recent business trip when he’d been experiencing a particularly difficult time in his life, making the anxiety even worse, he began to fear getting on the plane (with his company’s COO, nonetheless). I encouraged him to be candid with his boss and with his traveling companion. It took some cajoling on my part, but eventually, my friend realized that he needed to be straightforward with his manager about his situation or risk something far worse.

This got me thinking though. Sure, it was easy enough for me to instruct him to reveal this hugely personal part of himself, but I wasn’t the one who had to face these people at work every day. Once you admit that you struggle with anxiety, depression, ADHD, or bipolar disorder, are you just putting a scarlet-like letter on yourself? Are you setting yourself up for failure read in the form of not getting the big project or the promotion? Of course, being discriminated against because of any kind of mental health issue is illegal (more on this below), but that doesn’t mean that your concerns with opening up about them aren’t valid.

I trusted that Muse Coach and Licensed Social Worker, Melody Wilding, would know far more than me how to proceed, even though I don’t think the advice I gave my friend in his time of need was wrong. His flight was postponed by a full day, giving him more time to prepare for the departure (time he used to visit his psychiatrist, in fact). He reported that his COO was glad he’d been honest, explaining that he’s familiar with anxiety disorder, having a family member who faces a similar challenge. The trip ended up going off without a hitch; if there had been any issues though, at least the COO wouldn’t have been shell-shocked.

Understand Where You Are

There’s something about being prepared that often adds a level of security to things. And yet, I asked Wilding, at what point do you reveal this information to your boss? During the interview? Once you have a job offer? As I half-suspected, Wilding tells me that there is no “single ‘right’ answer.” What you decide to do varies “depending on the individual’s conditions, symptoms, and comfort level in addition to the dynamics and culture of the workplace.”

It stands to reason that because mental health issues are such delicate ones, “disclosure is a very personal decision,” explains Wilding. If you’re getting by OK, and your work isn’t suffering, you may not feel comfortable making a big announcement that essentially reveals your medical history.

But, if the state of your mental health is starting to interfere with your work and your ability to, well, do your job, Wilding says you’ll want to speak with your boss, “especially if you’re in need of accommodations or are going to need time off.” If you simply go in asking for time off due to a personal issue or emergency, know that you may be asked about the nature of your condition, by which point, you’ll probably have to disclose more information, though this doesn’t mean you have to read your medical chart to anyone.

Find an Appropriate Time

If your relationship with your boss is good, if you communicate often, and if you trust him or her, sharing some details of your situation will likely be a lot easier than if the workplace culture is a challenging, stiff one where it’s all work and no play, not ever. This is when scripting what you’re going to say and being ready with a list of things you’ve been excelling at can come in extra handy. If you and your boss have poor communication, you might consider paying a visit to the HR department first. Oftentimes, these individuals are better trained and equipped to assist in these complicated areas.

While most people probably won’t choose to disclose any details during the hiring process, if your issue is one that you struggle to keep under control, waiting until you get the offer and sign on the dotted line, after which you begin working and drop the ball on a major assignment solely due to your condition, probably isn’t your best bet. Instead, Wilding says, “you may need to be very up front and disclose during the interview process.” You’ll want to frame it, and put it in context, so that’s not the thing the interviewer is remembering about you. If you’re a part of a support group, it can be a good idea to speak to others about how they’ve approached this delicate situation.

Many of us have felt over-tired, over-worked, just flat-out exhausted. You may even be familiar with burnout. Maybe you immediately took a personal day or submitted a vacation request. Perhaps you approached your boss about your workload or figured out a way to finally start delegating some of your tasks. Whatever you felt like during that crazy, busy work period can’t compare to a serious, depressive episode. And if you’ve been diagnosed with depression, a few days off from work aren’t likely to whip you back in shape.

You should be talking to your doctor or a trusted medical professional, but you should also plan to have a conversation with your manager. Wilding says, however, that if you’re “in the thick of a depressive episode, for example, it might be best to wait until you’re in a better place so you have the energy and can appropriately bring yourself to have the best conversation with your employer.”

Maintain Your Privacy

Regardless of the conversation you have with your boss, you need only reveal as much as you’re comfortable with. You do not need to go into a lengthy explanation of your family’s history with bipolar disorder, nor do you need to give a run-down of all of your panic attacks. For example, if you have ADHD but this isn’t something you want to state as such, you might consider telling your supervisor that “you have issues with concentration that affect your ability to work,” Wilding says. It’s also appropriate to reveal that you have a medical issue or condition without actually mentioning your diagnosis by name, Wilding elaborates.

Although you may feel embarrassed by your mental health issues as my friend certainly was, you are far from alone. Wilding believes that as a culture we’re (slowly) approaching a greater acceptance of such issues. We’re having more conversations and understanding that the open dialogue around mental health and well being can be healing in and of itself.

One way of speaking to your employer about your situation may be to “reframe the situation as an opportunity,” suggests Wilding. You do this by regularly sharing your strengths, working with your team to create an “optimal working situation,” and being as productive as possible when all is well. And, of course, if you’re not already, you should be working with a licensed mental health professional. This person is trained to help you develop coping skills, process your worries and concerns, Wilding explains. He or she may even offer to role play with you so that you’re confident and prepared before you sit your boss down to tell him what’s been going on and what he can anticipate based on what you’re sharing.

Know the Law

Above all, as awkward as the discussion may feel, go into it knowing that you are protected. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which your HR department should be familiar with, “prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment…” The act further stipulates that “Anyone known to have a history of mental disorders can be considered disabled.”

That means you have rights and shouldn’t be worried that your employer will act against you simply because you open up about what’s happening. Because the law allows for qualified people to be accommodated to a reasonable extent, Wilding points out that, depending on the nature of the impairment, a person may be eligible for accommodations such as a flexible schedule or work from home privileges.” Better than assuming a couple of personal days will get you where you need to be, you might consider chatting with your boss about flex hours or remote working schedule that’s not determined in advance but rather is decided when you need it most.

If and when you do decide to disclose, the information you reveal will be kept confidential. Since overall well being and mental health issues aren’t as hidden as they once were, any companies, in fact, have resources for which you can locate behavioral health services, again, if you aren’t already seeing someone. While I know it is easier said than done, you really shouldn’t be ashamed of your mental health issues or let them prevent you from going after the job you want or the career you deserve.

Editor’s Note: This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not medical advice and should not be used to make a diagnosis or treat a condition. If your mental health is suffering, please consult with a medical specialist.