Mental health issues are rife in the workplace. In fact, poor mental health is the leading cause of absence from work, and in the UK alone, 70 million working days each year are lost to it. For some, these issues may be caused or triggered by work – excessive workload is a common underlying factor – but for others, existing issues can get in the way of working life. Either way, if you’re affected, support from your boss can make a big difference. But if you’re struggling with stress or other mental health issues, how do you bring up the subject?
Why it can be tough to talk
Although we’re better than ever before at talking about mental health, there’s still stigma around it. You might know that makes no sense but it can still be hard to share your struggles. And in the workplace, it’s natural to worry about what your colleagues and manager might think if they know you’re having difficulties. You may be concerned about your position in the workplace, and fear your boss will think you’re not coping.
But it’s important to remember mental health issues are very common – one in four of us will experience them at some point. So it’s very likely many of your colleagues will be facing some mental health challenges too, or have in the past. The chances are your boss has dealt with this before – perhaps they’ve even had their own issues, or someone in their family has. It can also be helpful to think of mental health as part of your overall health, not something separate. After all, your brain’s a part of your body. Most of us wouldn’t have the same level of worry talking about physical health.
And while many of us think of work as a source of stress, consider the flip side. Work can be fulfilling, most of us make friends in the workplace, and we spend the majority of our lives there. A positive working life can actually support good mental health - so it’s really worth getting the help you need. And if you speak up about your issues, you may help others do the same.
What your boss can do
Legally, most people with long-term mental health issues – including common ones like stress, depression and anxiety – meet the definition for disability in the UK and have the right to protection from discrimination, and to ask for reasonable adjustments to their working life. Your human resources department could be the first port of call if you don’t feel comfortable talking to your manager. As a minimum, there should be a clear ‘stress at work’ policy for supporting employees.
Here are a few of the ways your workplace could help you if you're experiencing issues with your mental health:
- Delegate some of your work to others if an excessive workload is causing stress
- Give you time off for therapy appointments
- Allow you to work from home some of the time if that’s easier on your mental health
- Excuse you from work functions and meetings that may be stressful for you
- Let you work flexible hours so you can fit in activities that support your mental health
And they may be able to help in other ways. As there’s increasing awareness of these issues, some workplaces now have mental health first aiders to support people. Some also offer wellness-boosting sessions in lunch breaks, such as yoga and meditation, which may be helpful to support mental health.
What to say – and how to do it
Ready to talk to your boss? Find a good time – this may be in a regular supervision session, or you could book a separate meeting, but it’s usually best to do it in a structured way, rather than when you’re out socialising with colleagues. The way you talk about it depends very much on you and your relationship with your manager, but as a general rule, it’s often best to keep it simple and focused on work. You could say something like, ‘I’m having some issues with my mental health and wanted to ask for some support so it doesn’t affect my work.’ That should be enough to start a conversation.
If you think you’ll find it difficult, you could always ask a trusted colleague to come to the meeting with you for support. And remember, you don’t have to go straight to your manager. You may find it easier to talk to someone in HR, who can start the communication with your boss. The Mental Health Foundation has more advice, including what to do if you don’t get anywhere with your manager. And we have lots of tips on managing stress and anxiety at work, and how to pinpoint the signs in yourself and your colleagues.