How to speak to your boss about your mental health

BY Ahmed Hankir

19th Apr 2024 Wellbeing

5 min read

How to speak to your boss about your mental health
Professor Ahmed Hankir, author of Breakthrough: A Story of Hope, Resilience and Mental Health Recovery explains how to talk to your boss about mental health at work
According to the NHS, one in four of us at some point will experience mental health problems. It is therefore not only possible, but probable that either you or someone you know will struggle with your mental health at some point in your life.
Multiple factors can increase your vulnerability to developing mental health problems. One of these important factors is work. This article is about how you can speak to your boss about how work is affecting your mental health and possible solutions.

Insight, honesty and denial

This is arguably the biggest barrier that persons must overcome. Before you can have an honest, open and transparent conversation with your boss about how and when work might be affecting your mental health, you need to have that conversation with yourself. Unfortunately, despite progress over recent years in reducing mental health related stigma online, in the workplace, and beyond, the reality is that stigma continues to thrive.
"Accept that you're struggling with your mental health and that work might be contributing to this"
Moreover, far too many of us continue to internalise that stigma and direct it towards ourselves. Consequently, we might be ashamed, or we may be in denial that our work is affecting our mental health. We might, for example, perpetuate the negative stereotype that only "weak persons" struggle with their mental health. We need to accept that we might be struggling with our mental health and that work might be contributing to this.

Signs and symptoms of mental health conditions

Woman stressed at work with head in hands
We need to educate ourselves about what the signs and symptoms are of common mental disorders, such as major depressive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder. Are you feeling more melancholic or low in mood than usual? Are you not enjoying life as much as you used to? Do you have a foreboding that something terrible is about to happen? Do you experience palpitations and difficulty in breathing?
If so, you might be suffering from a mental health condition, and I would urge you to arrange an appointment with your family doctor, who can assess your mental state further and diagnose you and help you come to terms and accept that you are suffering from a mental health condition and initiate an appropriate care plan. Your family doctor can also help you identify some of the factors that might be contributing to your mental health challenges, such as work and other psychosocial stressors, such as interpersonal conflict.

Employer’s approach to health problems and conditions

Once you have accepted that you are struggling with your mental health and that work might be contributing to this, investigate what your employer’s approach to health is more generally. By this I mean what is your employer’s approach to mental and physical health? What information was provided during induction, for example about support, is available for health conditions and problems more broadly? What resources are available for staff with health concerns? Does your employer have "parity of esteem" for mental health and physical health conditions and problems?
"It is helpful to know what your employer’s stance is on supporting persons with mental health conditions"
In other words, does your employer treat mental health and physical health the same? It is helpful and important to know what your employer’s stance is on supporting persons with mental health conditions and problems. Are they challenging mental health related stigma, or are they perpetuating it? If the latter, is this your opportunity to be an agent of change?

Speaking with your boss about mental health

Two women in a meeting
Now that you have been primed and that you have prepared yourself by equipping yourself with workplace policies and support mechanisms for persons with health problems—both physical and mental—it’s time to have that honest, open, and transparent conversation with your boss. Start off informally by asking general questions.
For example, "During induction, we received information about resources available for members of staff with health conditions and problems and how work might be affecting our health. Are you able to comment on this further and/or provide further information?" You can gauge your boss’s response and "assess" if they are concerned, interested or supportive. In most cases, your boss will be all of the above.
Once the seed has been planted, approach your boss again and ask them if you can arrange to have an informal and private conversation with them over, for example, a coffee. During this informal meeting, you can ask your boss to elaborate further on what support mechanisms are in place at the workplace for persons with health problems, and what the protocol is if staff notice that their work might be affecting their mental health. This includes the human and legal rights of persons living with mental health conditions and the obligations that your employer has in relation to supporting persons with mental health conditions.
This is also an opportunity to explore if your boss is making themselves emotionally available to you by, for example, displaying empathic listening and inviting you to embrace your vulnerability and to be "emotionally expressive" ie, how is this affecting you on a human level not just if it is associated with "impairment in occupational functioning".
You can even ask your boss, if they feel it is appropriate, to share if they have ever struggled with meeting the demands of work and if they noticed that work has ever affected their mental health. You can ask what they have done to deal and manage such problems and stressors at the workplace.

Sharing your story

I would suggest that you arrange to meet with your boss again to delve deeper into some of the topics you raised, only next time the meeting would be specifically in relation to yourself. During this meeting, you can discuss some of the challenges that you are facing at the workplace. This might, for example, be feeling overworked and/or overwhelmed with the workload.
It might be that there are structural and systemic problems such as workforce shortages and that you are bearing the brunt of this, and you are feeling overstretched. You can elaborate on how you feel that due to the workload, you don’t feel there is a work-life balance and as a result this is affecting your health especially your mental health. You can comment on how work is contributing to mental health difficulties such as low mood and/or anxiety, and that you have sought professional advice and help regarding this.
"It is your workplace’s responsibility to ensure that you feel supported and valued"
The purpose of the meeting is to demonstrate that you are a human being, that you are vulnerable to developing health problems, including mental health problems, like all human beings are. You can discuss how this is affecting you personally and uniquely. You can explore what options are available including sick leave, phased return to work, and what support services are available through the workplace.
It might be that simple adjustments and adaptations at the workplace will resolve these issues. If you work nights and you have a mental health condition that is affected by working night shifts (such as bipolar affective disorder), you can ask your employer to make reasonable accommodations so that you only work during the day.
Remember, having a mental health condition is nothing to be ashamed about and it is your workplace’s responsibility to ensure that you feel supported and valued at all times, especially when you feel that your work is affecting your mental health. The sooner you intervene, the more positive the outcomes are.
Breakthrough cover_11
Professor Ahmed Hankir MBChB MRCPsych is a Consultant Psychiatrist (UK and Canada), Honorary Visiting Professor School of Medicine at Cardiff University, and author of new book Breakthrough: A Story of Hope, Resilience and Mental Health Recovery (published by Wiley).
Banner: Stress can lead to mental health struggles at work. Credit: Anthony Shkraba
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