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Mental wellness

October 03, 2019

How to talk to your boss about your mental health

It may be tough to talk to your boss about your mental health, but experts say having the conversation can help your recovery.

Many of us like to keep our personal lives separate from work. That includes our mental health, and if we’re experiencing anxiety or depression. According to the 2019 Sun Life Barometer, 59% working Canadians have experienced a mental health issue. And 77% of working Canadians have experienced uncomfortable levels of stress.

That means half of working Canadians are showing up to work feeling the effects of a mental-health issue. It’s important to consider talking with your boss about it. Having the conversation can be the first step to feeling better.

Should you talk to your boss about your mental health?

Speaking to your boss about your mental health might feel like the last thing you want to do. But it’s important that you keep your boss informed. Not telling your employer about your mental health can actually make things more difficult. This is according to Dr. Samuel Mikail, a senior mental health consultant at Sun Life.

Some people who experience a mental illness act withdrawn because they feel overwhelmed. They may be less productive than usual or take time off work. “If you’re not willing to speak up, you may be perceived as not pulling your weight,” Dr. Mikail says. “Your manager may sense that something is going on and jump to conclusions.”

By speaking up, you can help your boss understand your situation. You can work together to create a plan to support your mental wellness at work. “It is essential to your recovery,” Dr. Mikail . “Speak to the people around you who ought to be informed.”

Know your rights. You can’t lose your job for sharing your mental illness with your boss. You also aren’t obligated to share your illness with your employer. For more on your rights as a worker, read the Canadian Human Rights Act.

4 tips for talking to your boss about anxiety or depression

  1. Be kind to yourself and reflect. “Our negative feelings about our own mental health can be very strong,” says Dr. Mikail. “Many people don’t recognize that they’re struggling with a mental health issue, so they may not address it. Feelings of shame also prevent many people from getting help.” If you’re experiencing mental illness symptoms – sleeplessness, loss of appetite or anxiety – don’t dismiss them. Take the time to reflect on how you are feeling and make some notes. Recording your feelings might help you brainstorm ways to manage your symptoms. It will also be helpful to have notes if you look for help from a mental health professional. Many workplace health plans offer coverage. Speak with a licensed professional. And refer to your workplace health and benefits provider to find out what your plan offers.
  2. Rehearse the conversation.“One thing that can lessen anxiety is rehearsing important conversations," Dr. Mikail says. Practise having the conversation with someone you're close to, like a partner, colleague or friend. Dr. Mikail also suggests practising in front of a mirror to see your body language. And how it corresponds to your words. Knowing that your body language supports your words will help you feel confident about having the conversation.
  3. Discuss your work environment with your employer.It’s important that you feel comfortable in your work environment. You have the right to ask for what makes you feel comfortable. The Human Rights Act says employers must accommodate people living with a disability. This includes mental illness. Maybe being around large groups creates stress for you. If so, you could ask to move to a quieter area of the office or work from home. Give your employer examples of ways to support you and then create a plan together. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CAMH) suggests writing out an accommodation request if you feel uncomfortable talking in person. It’s a good idea to keep a written record of your requests.
  4. Take advantage of your benefits. Mental health issues are on the rise. And many working Canadians with a mental health issue aren’t using their workplace benefits. According to the 2019 Sun Life Barometer, 60% of working Canadians with a mental health issue aren’t accessing support through their workplace benefits. Additionally, more than 78% haven’t used government-funded services.

What if you don't have a good relationship with your manager?

If a work-related issue like a poor relationship with your boss is part of the problem, you’re not alone. More than one-third of working Canadians told the Barometer researchers that their work lives are a source of uncomfortable levels of stress. If workplace stress is affecting your mental health, speaking to your manager may be very difficult for you. If that’s your situation, Dr. Mikail suggests you talk to a colleague, like someone senior who has a good relationship with your boss. “Speak to someone who you trust, who – ideally – has a good relationship with your manager,” he says. “They may have insights on how to best speak to your manager and can perhaps help facilitate the conversation.

Speaking up at work when you don’t feel your best takes courage. It’s an important step in helping yourself and perhaps even helping others.

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