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How to talk about mental health concerns with your boss

The pandemic has ushered in a new wave of mental health conversations — at home and at work.
The Future of Mental Health
The pandemic changed how we talk about mental health at work. Here's how to start that conversation with a manager.Rebekka Dunlap / For TODAY
/ Source: TMRW

Mental health was often considered a taboo topic that was "off-limits" in the workplace, leaving many people feeling that they must suffer in silence when dealing with anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns. Luckily, the tides have turned in the last few years and the pandemic has acted as a catalyst to change the way we approach conversations about mental health.

TMRW was curious to know: What does the future of mental health in the workplace look like? We spoke to several mental health and human resources experts to find out.

The pandemic changed how we talk about mental health at work

The pandemic has made us realize that our well-being is made up of both physical and mental health, and that includes work.

"The pandemic has changed the trajectory of how workplaces deal with mental health. Although mental health issues were prevalent before the pandemic, they were brought to the forefront during 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic forced employees to worry about their health, jobs and finances in ways they never had before," Jessica Webb-Ayer, J.D., a legal editor at XpertHR, told TMRW.

The stress of the pandemic took a toll on our ability to work productively, and the mental health conversation seemed less taboo in the workplace.

"The pandemic made it abundantly clear that mental health can no longer be ignored. Employers and employees are also becoming more comfortable having those conversations with each other," said board-certified adult psychiatrist Dr. Georgia Gaveras, who is the chief medical officer and co-founder of Talkiatry.

The mental health conversation isn't going anywhere

We've made some great strides recently, but will companies still prioritize mental health after the pandemic? The experts TMRW spoke with seemed to think that this is just the beginning of a more open discussion about mental health in the workplace.

"The pandemic caused employers to recognize mental health as a significant workplace issue that can have major effects on their organizations. Many have realized that even a relatively mild mental health issue can lead to absenteeism, declines in work performance, damaged relationships with coworkers and many other concerns," Webb-Ayer said.

With employees placing more value on their own well-being, employers will have to continue to confront the mental health conversation to help with employee retention, especially as time goes on.

"Each generation of people are more and more focused on making mental health a priority, Gaveras said. "This new group entering the workforce is especially attuned to their mental health needs and are also working toward keeping it a priority."

How to talk about mental health concerns with your boss

Feel awkward discussing mental health with your manager? TMRW tapped the experts for some tips to help make the conversation go smoothly:

  • Consider what you do and don't want to tell your manager: "You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to say. You are protected in that way — just like with any other medical issue. If you are in treatment, speak with your mental health professional about it and that person will have had experience with these discussions," Gaveras said.
  • Remember, you’re not alone: "Having an honest conversation can be a proactive, empowered step for you to take care of yourself and show up with more integrity in your work. It can actually relieve embarrassment and shame when you decide to accept what your struggle is," said Michelle Boulé, a life and business coach.
  • It's OK if things feel uncomfortable: "In the initial conversation, don’t be surprised if your manager doesn’t have all the right words, but likely if you are clear on the challenges you are facing and any asks you have from them around what support you need, they will work hard to support you," Anna Avalos, the chief people officer at personal finance company SoFi, said.

Keeping an open dialogue with your manager about any issues is important and can help give you more peace of mind in the long run.

"If you are experiencing mental health issues impacting your ability to be successful in your role, sharing those and problem solving with your manager is the best course of action. No one wants you to suffer in silence. Unless you share these things directly with your manager, they may have no idea of the issues you are experiencing," Avalos said.

Remember: Mental health days are a necessity, not a luxury

Do you feel like you're playing hooky when you take a mental health day? You're not alone. We've been taught to address physical ailments and take them much more seriously than mental health issues. Still, mental health days are gaining traction since the pandemic.

"It’s becoming more common for employees to take time off for their mental well-being and employers are also realizing that this does, in the long run, make the employee more efficient and effective. It also helps retain employees," Gaveras said.

You definitely don't have to tell your boss that you're taking a mental health day, but if you feel inclined to do so, it could help open up the lines of communication and help you continue the mental health conversation.

"We all struggle from time to time and your manager wants you to be able to bring your best self to work. Many companies have transitioned to flexible time off, which includes the opportunity to take a day off to recharge and focus on your mental health," Avalos said.

While you're taking a day off to recharge your batteries, don't forget to assess what might be causing you to feel overwhelmed.

"A mental health day works best when it’s combined with knowing what got a person to that point of overwhelm or burnout in the first place," Boulé said. "The important thing is to get to what the source of the problem is. In other words, get curious about what led to the burnout and adjust from there."