How To Proactively Talk To Your Boss About Your Mental Health
I'll admit that many years ago, I'd be somewhat reticent strategizing with clients on having mental health conversations. I'd be worried about the possible stigma, especially since depression and anxiety weren't discussed publicly and were usually seen as a sign of mental instability. Today, the culture has changed. Organizations are increasingly investing in staff well-being, making it far less taboo to openly talk about mental health at work.
Unfortunately, blanket well-being programs aren't always effective and sometimes feel more about ticking HR KPIs than actually helping employees have better mental health. Often, these programs can be clichéd and feel like another thing added to our growing to-do lists, and the wrong mandated activities, even when well-intentioned, can actually make some people feel worse.
We need to evolve corporate cultures by making the conversation about mental fitness proactive and a two-way street. Feel-good group activities can be nice, but they don't help employees who are actually struggling with mental health figure out how to balance their needs with their work—much less how to talk about them with their managers.
First of all, know that you have permission to take care of your mental fitness and have these important conversations. If you're noticing that your mental health is affecting your work, talk to your boss about creating a game plan that better supports your needs and also allows you to perform well and effectively manage your responsibilities. Ultimately, you are helping yourself and your organization.
Here's the truth: Good workers prioritize their mental health.
1. By honoring your mental fitness, you're buying time back.
My type-A clients tell me they have no time. But when we crunch the numbers, they realize they spend at least three hours worrying every day, and it hits them how a simple three-breath meditation can reset their fear center, helping them make wiser decisions. This way, they buy back time. Taking time out to rejuvenate is not only healthier but objectively a faster process than crashing into a painful and long-drawn-out forced recovery from your anxiety and panic attacks.
Moreover, burnout can lead to learned helplessness and hopelessness, especially if you experience similar episodes regularly. Learning how to rejuvenate, you teach yourself that you are in charge of your mental fitness and can master the curveballs that life throws at you.
2. It creates a positive, productive work environment.
The person who goes to work with the flu infects others, negatively affecting the bottom line. Similarly, emotions are contagious. Be around grounded people who feel good about life, and you're likely to catch on. The same goes for negative emotions— it's a vicious circle down the rabbit hole of pessimism and anxiety. Picture the last time you started your day feeling anxious or down—you likely saw the world through a negative filter and therefore reacted to life in the same way, which made you feel worse. You might have trouble sleeping that night and wake up feeling depleted. In cognitive behavioral therapy, we call it learning to be aware of how our perceptions may sometimes bias the way we interact with the world. If taking a mental health day can reset how you feel, then it creates a virtuous cycle internally and with the people in your circle.
3. If you're a leader or manager, it sets a good example for your team.
Humans are social creatures; we learn by watching each other, even if we're unaware of that happening. As leaders or managers, if we set the example of proactively taking care of our mental fitness, then we inspire our team and subordinates to do the same. You send this message that you don't have to break down in order to break through.
4. It's human to have ups and downs.
Often, people quip that they feel alone in their experiences. When we give them a label, such as "anxiety" or "panic attacks," they start realizing that others have the same experience and feel less like a special snowflake condemned to a lifetime of feeling like they are breaking down. The label also separates the experiences from the person—you feel anxiety, but that doesn't make you an anxious person unless you decide that's part of your identity. Moreover, this helps you realize that there are ways to solve the problem and use your darkest periods to make you stronger. In other words, your experiences can either continue to cost you or pay you dividends. I often tell my clients this nugget of wisdom from a lecturer—that if you have not experienced some form of anxiety or depression by the time you are in your late 20s, then you are not living fully in this complex world. Therefore, it is not a badge of honor to say you have been free of mental health difficulties your entire life. Instead, you should be proud of how you have risen through, like the mythical Hydra who grows three heads when you cut off one.
5. Rest enhances your well-being and performance.
Downtime makes many of us feel as though we cannot justify our existence. We mistakenly perceive it as twiddling our thumbs and doing "nothing." In reality, rest can be about doing lighter tasks instead. Famously, Darwin worked four hours a day, and as I tell my clients, "If it's good enough for Darwin, it's good enough for you." Research has also shown that rest is mandatory for the most talented and valuable workers in any organization because they are likeliest to experience burnout. To make it optimal, they should be high in relaxation, control, and mental detachment.
How to have a conversation about mental health with your boss.
If your current work environment, pace, or responsibilities are in conflict with your mental health, you can and should talk to your boss about it. I get that having a conversation about your mental health with your boss is distressing and can make you feel vulnerable, but recognize that soldiering through your difficulties leaves both you and your employer worse off. It's often the times in which we expect ourselves to simply push through that are actually the times when we need some time out.
Knowing how important it is for employees to prioritize their mental health, here's exactly how to have that conversation with your boss in a way that shows you're seeking to take care of yourself and your work:
1. Select the right setting.
Make sure to choose the right place, time, and mood. Block out an appropriate time and place with your boss. You'll also want to ensure you feel sufficiently confident when you walk into the meeting; consider preparing yourself beforehand by writing a script, visualizing yourself doing it, and doing a "power pose" in the bathroom to reduce cortisol levels.
2. Own your experiences.
Tell your boss you've not been feeling as mentally strong lately, sharing briefly on the cause and triggers. Be confident but also honest. Owning your struggles demonstrates that you're taking responsibility, and being vulnerable helps you connect as a human being. After all, your boss has likely had their fair share of ups and downs, too.
3. Get scientific.
Give your boss the facts about burnout. Specifically, that performance and well-being aren't a zero-sum game. Most people think that you can either perform well or have high levels of well-being—that's analogous to the dangerous myth that to be successful, you must be high-strung and sleep little. This plummets us down the rabbit hole of burning out. Working under these conditions is what leads to presenteeism—where employees show up for work but don't perform at full capacity—which costs 10 times more than absenteeism. When you approach your mental health and productivity strategy from a performance angle, however, things change.
Tell your boss you'd like to create a strategy that ensures that you rest and recover and that's tailored toward balancing your specific needs, lifestyle, and personality type with your specific work responsibilities and goals. In this way, your performance is sustained over time without having to burn out periodically. And because your lifestyle and work habits are optimized, you also enjoy the benefits of higher levels of well-being. The ultimate win-win.
4. Demonstrate your proactiveness.
Tell your boss your plan on reclaiming and enhancing your mental fitness—for instance, who you are hiring to help you and what you intend to do to address both the root and the symptoms. You could even ask if HR could provide some support. Don't worry if your plan is brief—you're not expected to come up with a 10-page comprehensive proposal. The point is that you are demonstrating proactiveness and a commitment to accountability.
You want to show how your request—whether that's for a break, a schedule or workload adjustment, more flexible deadlines, or any other accommodation you have in mind—will actually benefit both your health and your productivity, which is what's best for your employer in the long run as well. Demonstrate that you're thinking about the company's needs as you're thinking about your own and assure them that your request will have no adverse effects on their bottom lines—in fact, it may even help them improve.
5. Be confident.
There is no shame in having conversations around your mental fitness or taking breaks. What you are doing is being the master of your life and head. You're creating a life of sustained performance and authenticity, and that's best for both you and everyone around you.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.