Whether you live with a mental health condition or are going through a rough life event, it sometimes becomes necessary to discuss your needs at work.

Unmet mental health needs can cause personal strain, reduce productivity, and make you feel less confident at work. This means that your mental health needs are important to both you and your employer. That said, your employer is unlikely to broach the subject.

So, when and how can you open up this conversation?

Talking about mental health in the workplace 

Statistics from 2020 indicate that nearly half of United States workers experience a mental health concern of some kind. Even pre-pandemic, the number of workers experiencing mental health challenges was a significant one, and individuals in some fields are at a higher risk than others. 

It has become more common throughout the years to talk about mental health at work, which is great news because it normalizes these conversations and may help to reduce stigma. However, there are various factors that can make this conversation either easier or more difficult, such as company culture and prior experiences communicating with higher-ups in the workplace.

When might you talk about your mental health needs at work, and what might those be? 

When might you choose to disclose your mental health needs at work?

  • Even if your mental health issue isn’t visible, its impact on your work is apparent.
  • You feel the need to choose between working as usual and maintaining your wellbeing.
  • Your mental health issue changes how you give or receive communication.
  • You can get the job done, but some superficial expectations are getting in the way.

What kinds of mental health needs might be helpful to discuss?

  • The need to change something about your work schedule (e.g. go part-time long-term or temporarily, switch shift hours, or ask for flexible scheduling)
  • The need to change something about how you complete your work (e.g. splitting your 15 minute break into three 5 minute breaks, setting deadlines earlier than necessary so you have leeway) 
  • The need for contingency planning (e.g. brainstorming how can you still be helpful at work when your mental health is acting up) 
  • The need to take short-term or extensive time off work.
  • The need to take a mental health day if it won’t harm your employer or fellow employees.

Since so many of us were taught that mental health is a taboo topic, it makes sense to feel nervous about opening up the conversation. However, mental health is real, and when we don’t take care of it, the consequences can be both internal and external. If you stay silent about what’s going on, it impacts more than just you. Moreover, your mental health matters, and we all deserve to ask for what we need to be happy and healthy.

How do I talk to my boss about my mental health needs?

It’s time to take the leap and ask for that meeting or phone call. Here are some tips to keep in mind that can help you broach the conversation. 

Keep workplace needs at the forefront.  

You want to speak about your personal needs in terms of how they impact the needs of everyone at work. First, this approach shows that you care about your job. Second, it helps you retain privacy and keep the conversation a professional one. 

You only have to mention the parts of your mental health that cause issues at work. You don’t have to share everything or “prove” your mental health struggle  in order for your concerns to be taken seriously. In fact, keeping focused on work impacts may help your supervisor understand and accommodate your needs more easily. 

Instead of diving into the gritty details of your experience, you only have to disclose the noticeable effects of your experience. Notice how this approach also helps you maintain your personal boundaries. What does this look like in action? 

  • “My mental health has caused me to lose productive hours this week. However, I’m dedicated to this work, and I know that an extension on this project would make it as high-quality as it can be.”
  • “Despite my best efforts to stay calm, I’ve noticed that my stress levels have started to cross into my work. A couple of days off will allow me to iron out my personal life and come back to work as efficiently as possible.”
  • “Because of some events in my personal life, I am feeling blue and disconnected this week. I don’t want that to hurt my interactions with customers. I think I might be of more use doing inventory instead of directly helping customers for a couple days. Could that possibly work for the store’s needs?”

Think about how you’d discuss a physical health need.

Though mental health stigma is improving, it can still have an impact on whether or not we discuss our mental health. If this is true for you, it might help to think about how you’d bring up a physical health need to your boss. Then, use the same format. 

Physical request: “I have been throwing up this morning. I can still come in, but it would help to work the register closest to the bathroom.”

Mental health request: “I have been having panic attacks the past couple of days. I can still work, but if I feel tears coming up, could I briefly run to the bathroom?”

Notice how the impact at work is similar between the physical and mental health need? That should reassure you that your mental health needs are just as valid–and just as worthy of accommodation. 

Know that it’s okay to have boundaries around what you share.

We all have varying comfort levels with our bosses and other higher-ups. With this in mind, know that you only have to share what you need to. What information is necessary to get your need met? 

If there’s something you don’t want to share, or if you worry your employer will pry deeper, it may be advantageous to think in advance about how you’ll reply. Again, keep your work needs at the forefront of the conversation. Here are some ways you can assert your boundary while remaining respectful to your boss:

  • I understand your curiosity about X, but I’d prefer if we stayed focused on how X impacts my work performance.
  • I appreciate that you want to understand my situation, but talking about the details makes it even harder for me to stay in the moment. 
  • Maybe we can talk about the personal details later. But for now, I really want to save my emotional energy for getting this job done.

If you can, ask for the help of an advocate.

This can look a number of different ways. One type of “advocate” is someone who knows your worth in the workplace and is willing to speak about it. Before talking to your boss, ask this person whether you can mention their name: 

  • “So-and-so has frequently been my direct supervisor and agrees that my work would be better with some minor accommodations.”
  • “So-and-so has praised my work ethic, and they are a great worker themselves. Their feedback makes me feel confident that an accommodation will greatly benefit my contribution to the workplace.”

Another type of advocate is someone from outside the workplace who can speak to your mental health struggle and/or need for accommodation:

  • A note from your mental health professional can help your boss understand what you need in order to succeed. If you don’t have a note that expresses your need for an accommodation and it might be something you can obtain, it’s wise to do so. 
  • Your primary care doctor can also help communicate your need for accommodation due to stress or other life concerns (even without a mental health or other diagnosis) 

Talk through what you’ll say with someone else first. 

Some people may find it helpful to roleplay the conversation with a friend or loved one before they have it in real life with their higher-ups. You can also do this with a therapist or counselor. It could even be in an anonymous peer support chat. 

Alternatively, the simple act of saying the words out loud could be beneficial. You might write down a brief overview of what you’ll say and then practice this conversation in front of the mirror. 

Understand that this conversation may be ongoing

It may be important to keep the conversation open with your boss, especially if there’s anything that might change over time or that isn’t set in stone. Let your employer know that you’re willing to work with them on an ongoing basis to find what works–and that you’re dedicated to doing so. 

Talk to someone

If you need a non-judgmental space to talk to someone, we’re here to help. Supportiv offers peer support 24/7, and it’s a safe place to talk about what’s on your mind. Having another person to talk to, and knowing that someone’s on your side, can help you take the leap. You deserve to have your needs met, and you deserve to have someone there to listen.