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.

By Joy Blenman

Most Canadians would rather not speak to their bosses about their mental health. According to the Sun Life Barometer Study, working Canadians are only half as likely to report a mental/emotional health issue to their employer as they would a serious physical health issue or accident. But the same study showed that half of working Canadians have experienced a mental health issue at some point – so that’s a lot of conversations that aren’t happening.

While speaking to your boss about your mental health may feel like the last thing you want to do, it’s essential to your recovery that you do it. Not letting your employer know what’s happening with your mental health can prevent you from getting help and can actually make things worse, says Dr. Samuel Mikail, a senior mental health consultant at Sun Life Financial.

Sometimes people experiencing a mental illness may act withdrawn because they feel overwhelmed. They may also 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, because your manager may sense that something is going on and jump to conclusions about the reason,” says Dr. Mikail.

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

NOTE: Know your rights – you can’t be fired for disclosing your mental illness to your boss. On the other hand, while it is helpful to talk to your boss, you aren’t obligated to disclose your illness to your employer. For more on your rights as a worker, read the Canadian Human Rights Act.

3 tips for talking to your boss about mental wellness

1. Take the time to 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 symptoms of a mental illness, such as continuing sleeplessness, loss of appetite or anxiety, don’t dismiss your feelings. Take the time to reflect on how you are feeling and make some notes. Recording your feelings will help you to brainstorm ways to manage your symptoms and help you rehearse your conversation with your boss. It will also be helpful to have the notes if you look for help from a mental health professional. Many workplace health plans offer coverage if you speak with a licensed professional, so refer to your workplace health and benefitsprovider to find out what your plan offers.

2. Rehearse the conversation. “One thing that can lessen anxiety is rehearsing important conversations,” says Dr. Mikail. Practise having the conversation with someone you’re close to, such as a partner, colleague or friend. Dr. Mikail also suggests practising in front of a mirror to see what your body language looks like, and how it corresponds to your words. Knowing your body language supports rather than detracts from your words will help you feel confident about having the conversation.

3. Discuss accommodations with your employer. You have the right to ask for accommodations at work if you are experiencing mental illness. According to the Human Rights Act, all employers must accommodate people living with a disability such as a mental illness. What might that look like? For example, if being around large groups creates stress for you, you could ask to move to a quieter area of the office or work from home. Give your employer concrete examples of ways to support you and then create a plan together. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CAMH) suggests writing out your accommodation request to your employer if you feel uncomfortable talking in person. It’s a good idea to have a written record of your requests, in any case.

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

If a work-related issue such as 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, particularly 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, particularly when you don’t feel your best, takes courage. It’s an important step in helping yourself and perhaps even helping others. For more on workplace mental health: The power of starting a conversation: Mental health in the workplace.