The subject of mental health has started to gain more attention over the last several years. Part of this is due to the recognition that it is not unusual for many of us to experience challenges in this area. According to the world health organization, up to 450 million people worldwide live with some form of mental health condition. That makes it statistically likely that we or someone close to us will be impacted.
Mental health conditions affect various areas of our lives, to the extent that there may be times that we need to support in our jobs. After all, these are often areas of pressure and stress, which can exacerbate the difficulties we have. Yet, people still deal with a significant amount of stigma attached to mental health and a business culture with an inaccurate perception of whether those with mental illnesses are employable. A 2017 University of Toronto study into the effects of stigma found that applicants who announced their depression were less likely to gain employment than those with more physical illnesses like hyperthyroidism.
It can feel like a Catch-22 scenario. We’re going to take a closer look at how to go about discussing mental illness with your employer. What approaches can be effective, and how can you protect yourself from negative consequences?
Broaching the Topic
At work, the anxieties that surround discussing our mental health can be compounded by the potential for stigma. This is why it can be wise to strategize how you go about broaching the subject, building a supportive framework for yourself.
Some tactics can include:
- Provide Education
It shouldn’t be your responsibility to educate your boss or your co-workers about your mental health. However, our culture has spread misinformation about mental illness for centuries, resulting in a lot of fear and ignorance that drives stigma. Go into a meeting with your employer armed with pamphlets and printouts that help explain the common attributes of your illness, and how those experiencing it continue to be functional, productive adults. This can go some way toward dispelling negative perceptions of your challenges.
- Trigger List
Not all mental illnesses will have defined triggers, but there are often stimuli that spur symptoms. Some may be as common as workplace stress, but others may be issues that employers wouldn’t have considered. For instance, the way the media portrays beauty sets sometimes dangerously unrealistic standards that harm the wellbeing of women in particular. Though the industry is trying to improve, there may still be magazines about the office or images on advertising that stimulate body dysmorphia and depression. Outlining what your triggers are in writing can help to provide a clear framework for standards in the workplace, and can make it easier for you to talk about.
One of the key reasons to talk about mental health with your employer is that at some point your symptoms may make your job more difficult. There may be some legislation that guarantees the right to reasonable accommodations — such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the European Accessibility Act — but making demands purely based on legal precedent isn’t always going to elicit a positive response.
When in a meeting to discuss your needs, start with the steps that you take yourself to address the challenges you face with your mental health. Talk about the work that you put in — often unseen — to make sure that your illness doesn’t impact the business or its operations. This can be the exercise regimen you have committed to or the counselling you take in your own time. Then use this to talk about how the accommodations you’re requesting help to support your efforts. This gives the impression that you continue to take personal responsibility for your illness, but that their input can be important too.
Part of the difficulty in requesting accommodations can be that others believe you’re insisting upon special considerations. While this may be inaccurate, it can help to approach the discussion from the perspective that many, if not all of the resources can help everyone in the company. Seeking access to company subsidized telemedicine services, for instance, can be shown to help employees across various issues not just in mental health, but also niche areas such as vision care, or physiotherapy. These kinds of remotely accessible tools not only limit in-person doctor visits that can risk exposure to more illnesses but can also minimize productivity disruption by cutting down on time off for travelling time to appointments. By demonstrating how these measures help the entire company, you can make a more positive impact on your requests.
The knowledge that inaccurate perceptions of mental illness can affect your ability to keep your job can understandably be worrying. While openness is one of the keys to removing the negative effects of stigma in our society, it has to be a personal decision whether you discuss your challenges with your employer. That said, if you do decide to open up, it can be wise to take a few precautions to prevent negative consequences.
These can include:
Be sure to document — including dates and times — all your attempts to discuss the issue with your employer, any requests you’ve made, and the company’s responses. Where possible, make sure that requests and communications are made in a durable medium such as a letter or by email. Fully document negative responses, and the actions taken as a result. If you have a meeting, create minutes of these, and provide them to everyone involved, including human resources (HR). This means that should you need to take legal action as a result of stigma, you have full and accurate accounts and supporting evidence.
- Self Care
Discussing your mental health can be a difficult process, particularly if you experience negative responses as a result of your discussions. Throughout the process, it is important to practice self-care and put your well being first. If meetings are causing you stress or anxiety, request breaks or adjournments. Give yourself the space you need, and if necessary seek support from a friend, family member, or mediator.
Living with mental illness can be difficult enough, without the negative effects of stigma. When approaching discussions at work about your circumstances and your needs, it can be wise to effectively strategize. Put in place any tools and preparations that you feel will be most supportive. This not only can create positive conversations with your employer but also makes the process easier for you.