Talking mental health at work
If you’re suffering from depression and anxiety, how do you tell your boss? A Priory Group psychiatrist offers his advice
In today’s economic climate, many can be forgiven for feeling ‘grateful’ to have a job and it's all too easy to accept the added pressures of working life rather than question them. Many may even consider it a weakness to suggest they are unable to cope.
But mental health has risen up the workplace agenda – and it starts by having a conversation with your boss. Recent research by Business in the Community found the majority (84 per cent) of managers acknowledged that employee wellbeing was their responsibility.
More than 11 million days a year are lost at work because of stress, and employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.
So how best can you raise the issues? There are several approaches employees can take – and by "tackling the taboo", they may be pleasantly surprised by the positive response.
1. Remember a mental health problem is no different to reporting a problem with your physical health…it just feels different. When we are depressed, we often have strong feelings of shame about how we are feeling. That is not just a psychological reaction but part of the biology of depression. Shame leads us to hiding away but hiding away makes our situation worse in the workplace and elsewhere. Think about the origins of how you are feeling.
2. If you can't find the words to explain how you feel, or the help you may need from your employer, write it down first in an email or letter... Check it and run it past someone close.
3. Rather than making it about how you "feel", focus on the impact your mental health is having on your work and productivity and how you can work together to improve the situation. Remember, your employer will want to help you not least because it makes good business sense.
4. It’s entirely up to you how much you want to disclose. You don't have to "name" your condition but be careful about words like “stress” which can mean many different things and is often misinterpreted. If you have seen your doctor, and have a diagnosis, then let your employer know you are ill.
5. Don't sweat about the so-called stigma. Stigma and discrimination about mental health is "not allowed" to exist in the workplace in 2018. Most responsible employers recognise that and many take positive steps to reduce it through educating their workforce about mental as well as physical well-being.
6. If you really feel you can't face talking to your boss, seek help in the form of a mediator. You don’t have to do this alone if you don’t want to. Help and support can often be found in your HR department, through a trusted colleague, via an occupational health officer or a representative from ACAS.
7. Face your fear and recognise that your boss may be more receptive than you think. These days mental ill health is the most common reason for sickness absence. Between one in five and one in six people will seek help for depression at some time so the chances are that someone in your office or management team will have direct experience of it, either through having suffered themselves or being close to someone who did.
8. Check out what is on offer at work. Companies both large and small across the UK invest in their employee wellbeing and want to provide support to their employees. This might include free phone counselling and short-term face-to-face counselling (typically 6-8 sessions). Care First, part of the Priory Group, operates an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) for many UK employers consisting of a range of such services, alongside tools to help manage stress and anxiety. Check whether your employer offers something like this, as it is free for employees and hugely valuable.
9. Don’t forget to let them know how they did. When you have weathered the storm and recovered, let your employer know how they did. What was helpful for you when you were struggling? Help your organisation to learn from your experience.
10. By speaking up, you are helping yourself and others. As a valued employee, with knowledge and experience, your firm has invested time and training in you and want you to be productive. When we get depressed we lose sight of that. By speaking up, you are helping yourself - and them.
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