"......talking about the impacts of mental health at work often brings the inevitable “I couldn’t, I shouldn’t and I mustn't talk about this”. "
Even in 2023 with greater investment, awareness and accessibility, mental health so often remains the elephant in the room and it can be a frightening prospect to open up to others about what is really going on. As a psychologist working full-time in a corporate environment, this is a reality I see every day. Although I meet with individuals to talk about the trauma, the difficult childhoods, the family stressors and the never ending workloads that bring such unmanageable suffering, talking about the impact of these events at work often brings the inevitable “I couldn’t, I shouldn’t and I mustn't talk about this”.
For many, the thought of disclosing a mental health difficulty to a colleague or a manager brings fears of being labelled weak, fragile and essentially not up to the job (particularly when this also comes off the back of already feeling discriminated against in regards to ethnicity, sexuality, age or gender).
It’s not uncommon for me to hear of individuals taking sick days due to a “bad back”, booking fake meetings or spending prolonged periods of time in the bathroom facilities in order to capture the breathing space and time they need to manage. These techniques may make the moment more bearable but they also perpetuate a sense of isolation, shame, a sense that “it is just me that can’t cope” and importantly they don’t allow access to support. Indeed, it is only when things have reached rock bottom or a major event happens that we feel justified to ask for what we really need, and what is really going on.
But do I really need to tell my manager?
With the above in mind, it may feel like telling a manager or a work colleague about a mental health difficulty is always the right answer but that isn’t necessarily the case. One of the key questions to ask yourself is how much do you think what is going on for you affects your work? If what you are going through has little bearing on your work life, and you feel that you have the adequate level of support then there may be little need for disclosure. Your decision to tell a manager may also be based on the relationship that you have with them - is there the level of trust needed to confide such an intimate part of yourself or is there somebody else that you would rather turn to first and who can better meet your needs? You might also want to consider whether you understand what the organisation's stance/policy is on supporting people's mental health in the workplace? Is there a culture of openness and promoting support? Or does it conjure a rather different vibe....
Yet talking to a manager about what is going on can also bring great benefits. It gives an opportunity to access support - not only in terms of signposting to employee assistance programs and private medical but to also think about changes to working time, work loads or time away from the office. For example if you’ve suffered with anxiety or panic, then you may experience an out-of-the-blue request from your manager as the sure fire way to the good ol' fight/flight/freeze response. Having a conversation may allow you to think about how written feedback in advance of these random requests may help you to prepare and gain some control. Equally, it might be that asking your manager to be clearer about what they are asking of you when they send emails avoids any potential for misinterpretation... which can lead to uncertainty and negative thinking.
It can also provide the context for empathy and understanding. Rather than seeing the random sick days as examples of poor performance, it opens the doors to seeing those one or two days as needed time to recharge and get back on track. Without explanation managers may fill unknown gaps with assumptions which can fuel mistrust in the relationship.
Talking about mental health can also bring connectedness and relief - a sense that you no longer need to keep a secret and that someone else knows what you are going through. Managers and senior leaders are not immune to difficulties themselves, and even if they haven’t experienced a significant mental health problem they will at some point have experienced sadness, worry, numbness and feelings of not being in control. Whilst you are still talking to a manager.... you are also talking to another human being.
So I’m considering talking to my manager? What do I need to do first?
For those thinking of talking with a manager, one of the first things to think about is why are you having this conversation in the first place? Is this about wanting practical changes to the way you work such as time off, changes to how feedback is given or a change in hours? Is this about getting signposted to support offered by the organisation? Or is it about a starting conversation to make them more aware of what you are having to deal with? You don’t need to have this fully mapped out and know exactly what changes you need, part of the conversation is how you can problem-solve this together. Similarly, HR or people teams can also work with you and your manager to add more detail to the plan as you move forward.
I’m not sure where to start? Are there things I should/shouldn’t say?
Okay so before booking the 1:1, think about timing and the environment. Try to meet in a place which feels comfortable for you and one which allows you the privacy and time to talk. This doesn’t even need to be in the office, sometimes going outside for a walk can ease the pressure (and means you don’t have the eye to eye contact which can feel intense). Equally, in the working from home world, you can use the phone rather than video-call if that feels easier and have someone you trust with you for support. When you request the time with your boss, put a good amount of time aside. This allows the conversation to not be interrupted or rushed. If you don’t use all of the time, that is ok. Simple statements such as “I’m wondering if you have some time to talk?” can be enough to get things going.
".....It’s important to remember that you don’t need to tell your manager everything. Focus on giving enough information so that they can help you to think about the impacts at work but more importantly what you need in terms of support."
It’s important to remember that you don’t need to tell your manager everything. Focus on giving enough information so that they can help you to think about the impacts at work but more importantly what you need in terms of support. You may want to practice what and how much you want to say with a friend, loved one or professional first or even write down a list of key bullet points. This can help you to find the right words and help you to feel calmer and more in control as you approach the conversation.
Final Key Things to Remember:
Even when we are talking with the most supportive manager and colleagues, this can be a hard conversation. It might be awkward, and not go exactly as you visualised - but most people find a sense of huge relief once they have done it. Your manager might not totally understand exactly what you are dealing with but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to or can’t help.
Reduce the stress of caring about how you manage mental health
After a 3-months long open dialogue with over 20 HR directors and senior managers, Amplify recently launched the HR and Manager Consultation programme, a pioneering service that specifically helps HR teams and managers reduce the stress of caring about how they manage mental health at work.