Sparking the Conversation: Ways to Bring Up Mental Health at Work

Having these conversations in the workplace can be intimidating, but they’re also a powerful way to confront stigma and get the support you need.

Written by Rachel Unger

Sparking the Conversation: Ways to Bring Up Mental Health at Work

01 A true culture of wellness requires an active dialogue. Managers, employees and leadership all play important roles in proactively addressing workplace mental health.

02 When reaching out, go into the conversation prepared and with a clear idea of the type of support you want. For example, a workplace accommodation.

03 When we make it okay to talk about mental health at work, everyone benefits.

Opening up about your mental health, no matter the setting, is tough. Stigma can make us feel like doing so is burdensome, but in reality, emotional vulnerability is brave, empowering and has long term benefits. 

That said, different settings come with different challenges. At work, being vulnerable requires a ton of pre-planning and thinking. Workplace stigmas are especially strong. 

The unfortunate reality is that many people do not feel comfortable sharing their mental health problems with coworkers or employers. They fear retaliation, judgement and lost opportunity. They may be worried about confidentiality and damage to their career goals. Will it change the way they’re viewed? Will people think less of them and their competence? 

Having these conversations in the workplace can be intimidating, but they’re also a powerful way to confront stigma and get the support you need.

How to Talk to a Manager

Only you can decide whether or not to speak up. Before making your decision, consider the pros and cons.

  • What do you hope to gain by doing so?
  • What kind of support are you looking for?
  • What are your employer's policies regarding confidentiality and accommodations?
  • How supportive would you consider your work environment? 

You may be bringing up your mental health in order to request accommodations or time off for wellness. Or, maybe you just want your manager to know about what’s going on. It can help to write down what you’ve been experiencing, how long you’ve been experiencing it and how it's impacting your work. 

Should You Tell Your Employer About Your Mental Health Diagnosis?

In this video, mental health advocate Lauren talks about whether or not you should disclose your mental health diagnosis to your employer. She also provides some tips for doing so.

Once you’ve made the decision to disclose your condition, schedule a time to talk to your manager privately. Preparing what you’re going to say will help you feel confident when it comes time to talk about what’s going on. You can practice the conversation beforehand or jot down your thoughts and share them with a friend or therapist if you feel comfortable with that. A written note from your doctor or mental health professional can help explain your situation, too. 

During the conversation, focus on how your condition impacts your job and productivity. Present ideas about what adjustments might help you perform to the best of your ability. That way, when your manager asks how they can help, you’ll have a good place to start. 

Depending on your situation, you may be able to request workplace accommodations. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), most U.S. employers must provide "reasonable accommodations" to qualified employees with disabilities. The ADA defines a disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." In other words, mental health accommodations are covered, too. To learn more about whether your mental health condition meets the definition of an ADA disability, head here

Tim's Story | Mental Health at Work

“It was a journey I had to go on, of acknowledging that I needed to get help, getting it, facing my fear of what people would think. I am coming through that much stronger, much healthier, much happier.” — Tim Munden, CLO of Unilever

It’s okay if you don’t know what kind of adjustment would help. You can work together to come up with an accommodation that meets your needs and doesn’t cause your employer “undue hardship.” This could include modifications to job equipment, environments, schedules or responsibilities. There are endless examples of accommodations that employers can adopt to help support their employees. 

In the US, your employer is required by law to maintain your privacy, protect you from discrimination and make reasonable workplace accommodations. You are under no obligation to share the nature of your condition, or answer questions you don’t want to. You can explain you have a medical condition without naming an actual diagnosis. However, if you’re requesting an accommodation, your employer is allowed to ask for additional medical information, and they can deny your request if you don’t provide it. 

With a few exceptions, the ADA strictly requires US employers to keep your medical information confidential and store it in separate medical files. That includes not only treatments or a diagnosis, but also the fact that you requested or received reasonable accommodation.

If you’re concerned that your manager won’t be sympathetic, you may want to confide in your human resources or legal department. In fact, in some companies, HR is the best place to start. Some people also seek out a mediator. Talking to the appropriate people about your situation will help you access the full extent of support that your workplace offers, whether that’s time off, workplace accommodations or treatment options. 

Speaking up can be a daunting prospect, but your employer may be more understanding than you think.
62% of employees said having someone in a leadership role speak openly about mental health would make them feel more comfortable talking about it themselves.
Berlin Cameron, Kantar

How Managers Can Support

Mental health conditions are common, and most managers will supervise someone who has one at some point in their career — whether they’re aware of it or not. Because they work so closely with their staff, managers are in an ideal position to get the conversation going. Here are some ways that managers can create a more open, accepting culture at work. 

Voice Your Support

Let your staff know that you’re always available to talk. Make a habit of reaching out to ensure everyone has what they need to perform at their best. Offer flexibility wherever you can. There may be changes to tasks, schedules or hours that would make a major difference. Be compassionate, and take the time to listen to their concerns. Reinforce the message that mental health is a top priority, and you’re there to support them. 

Schedule One-on-Ones 

Block regular time in your schedule to check in with your employees. These kinds of catch-ups create a safe space for employees to raise issues. How’s their stress level? Have they taken a break recently? Is their workload manageable? What can you do to help them? Put real effort into making people feel comfortable having these conversations. 

Offer Education and Training

Provide a structured format for exploring topics related to mental health by creating on-the-job educational opportunities. Consider bringing in an expert to answer common questions, explain terminology and hold individual meetings with staff. Carve out time during the regular work day to have everyone from your team participate. You can also ask about training to learn how to recognize and respond to accommodation requests

Share Stories

Encourage leaders to talk about their own experiences with mental health. Sharing stories can help humanize these experiences and raise awareness. A study by Berlin Cameron and Kantar found that 62% of employees said having someone in a leadership role speak openly about mental health would make them feel more comfortable talking about it themselves. Being vulnerable makes it okay for your staff to do the same. 

Leverage Internal Communications

Send out monthly wellness emails with relevant resources, words of encouragement and recent mental health news. Set up an anonymous question portal for your team to submit thoughts and concerns, and respond on a regular basis. Get feedback on what’s working and what could be improved. Make sure your staff is involved in decision-making related to these issues. 

These kinds of discussions can have a huge impact on your employees’ emotional well-being and strengthen their commitment to your organization. They also increase the likelihood that people will reach out for help when they need it. By purposefully integrating mental health into programming, policy and daily practices, you can make it okay to talk about at work. And that benefits everyone. 

About the author

Rachel Unger is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She's passionate about raising mental health awareness and promoting fairness in the workplace.

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