The most important conversation you can have with your boss
Words Emma Vidgen // @emma_vee
Working in an all-female office when I began my career in publishing, not much was off limits. Sex, periods, body image, diets, relationship problems, you name it! All of these topics were completely normal kitchen conversation, but mental health remained something of a taboo.
So when I was diagnosed with clinical depression about 12 months into my first gig, I didn’t even consider sharing the diagnosis with my boss. Having been raised in a family where mental health was polite dinner conversation, it wasn’t that I was shocked or ashamed of my diagnosis. It just wasn’t something I had ever heard anyone discuss in the workplace. And when every other topic was fair game, I guess the inference I drew was that it was something I needed to hide. Truth be told, I think I was terrified I would be passed over for a promotion if I was labelled as having anything less-than super human resilience.
Fast forward 16 years and things have changed A LOT. While there are plenty of changes to workplace culture that I’m not so jazzed about (non-stop connectivity for one), one thing I am happy about is the way our attitudes have changed towards mental health. It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually things did shift. As the years passed, mental health became a part of the workplace vernacular. I felt secure enough to open up about my own challenges to some incredibly supportive managers and mentors. As a manager I was honoured to have staff share how and when they needed support.
Now mental health in the workplace is a huge talking point. Big businesses get behind R U OK day and HR teams have entire positions dedicated to workplace wellbeing. There’s even a week dedicated to it (this week October 5-11 in fact). I think the more we talk about it, the better, but it’s important to remember mental health isn’t something we should only think about once a year when there’s an awareness week or an annual day. It’s an ongoing dialogue, a conversation we need to continue to facilitate and champion, to remind people not only to ask R U OK but also IT’S OK IF U R NOT OK. Despite all the hype and fanfare around emotional wellbeing, it can still be incredibly daunting to sit down with a colleague and share how you’re feeling. That’s why we spoke to Tahnee Schulz, psychologist, Chief Operating Officer and Head of Clinical at online health platform, Lysn , to ask her guidance on how to have the mental health discussion at work, with as little anxiety as possible.
Talking about your own mental health can be intimidating. What are the benefits of having an open and honest conversation about any mental health issues you might be dealing with?
Not all managers are good leaders, and not all good leaders are managers. Having open and honest conversations about your mental health can actually be empowering. If and how you chose to share should be guided by the kind of person your boss is and the type of relationship you have. Have you been able to approach difficult conversations with them before? If so, how did they respond? Managers have a responibilty to assist with mental health concerns, and they are better equipped to support you effectively if you’ve had an open and honest conversation. This also protects you from them making assumptions about you, and for them to see your strengths, maturity and intentions. Left undisclosed your mental illness will limit or even prevent your manager from being able to provide reasonable adjustments or support.
At what point is it appropriate to discuss your mental health with your manager?
Many people who suffer from a mental illness are also high functioning and very capable. Unless your mental capacity puts you or others in potential danger, there is no legal obligation to disclose. However, if your mental health is impacting your ability, it can be professional and ethical to disclose it so you can work with your boss to make some adjustments. In other cases, you may be able to operate, but sharing honestly can be helpful and even empowering. Almost half (45 per cent) of Australian adults will experience a mental health problem at some stage in their life, so chances are that your boss has been touched by mental illness either directly or indirectly. Disclosing can be incredibly proactive, preventing further decline. Not only can it help explain your performance or behaviour recently (which protects your reputation and demonstrates that you are self-aware and insightful) but it also can support your relationship with your manager and show your care for your team. It can be highly respectable, professional and mature to start the conversation.
“45% Australian adults will experience a mental health problem at some stage in their life, so chances are that your boss has been touched by mental illness either directly or indirectly”
Do you think it’s approporiate to discuss your mental health with co-workers?
Discussing mental health in general can be a great way to increase awareness and reduce stigma. Disclosing your own personal mental health may feel vulnerable. The important thing is to be both considerate of yourself and others. Consider why you wish to share with them and what you would like to gain from sharing. Share both of these considerations with the colleague. Often people care but are worried that they will make things worse by saying something or feel that they’re meant to fix it. Let them know that you’re sharing because you trust them and you hope that by sharing, they will better understand your ups and downs and this helps you feel less alone. Reassure them that they don’t need to do anything but respect your privacy and continue to treat you as a capable individual.
What’s the best way to support a co-worker dealing with mental health issues?
Empathy is feeling with people. As a co-worker you don’t need to, nor is it helpful, to act like a mental health professional. You don’t need to be an expert. Often all the person needs to hear is you say “I don’t know what to say, but I’m glad you told me. I’m here for you.” Keep an eye out for them to notice any changes in their mental health over time. If you’re worried about them, use ‘I’ statements to say you’re worried about them as opposed to ‘you’ statements; “I’m worried about you / I care about you” as opposed to “you’re not coping”. If you notice changes that concern you, highlight these changes kindly “I’ve noticed you haven’t been coming into work lately. Are you ok?”. Ask them what has helped them in the past and offer to help them find options to gain professional help such as lifeline, getting a mental health care plan from their GP or booking an appointment at with us as welysn.com Encourage them to look after themselves and follow up with them over time so they know you care.
THE STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW:
As much as it can be empowering to have the mental health conversation with your boss, being so open and honest about it can leave you feeling extremely vulnerable. Knowing your legal rights can help calm the anxious waters a little.
Are managers under any obligation to allow time off work for mental health appointments?
They have a responsibility to assist workers with mental illness by providing ‘reasonable adjustments’ to enable you to perform your duties more effectively in the workplace. To do this effectively it is important to inform them about your mental illness and your needs. This includes allowing time for staff to attend counselling and other mental health appointments within your entitlements.
Legally, is a ‘mental health day’ something we can take?
Whether your manager is aware of it or not, your mental health and physical wellbeing is connected. You do not have to disclose what part of ‘you’ is being impacted, when you decide you shouldn’t attend work. Being ‘sick’ can be contagious, and it’s always courteous to stay away from work on these days. But a recovery injury or a overwhelmed head can both be acceptable reasons to utilise your entitlements for much-needed rest and recovery.
People often don’t disclose their mental health for fear it will affect their perception of capability or career progression. Is there any legislation to protect you from this kind of situation?
Except in cases of emergency, hanagers have privacy obligations when talking to a worker about mental illness. Personal details are required to be kept strictly confidential unless you agree for the manager to disclose the information to another person. In order to comply with relevant anti-discrimination legislation, workplaces are required to adequately consider reasonable adjustments in the workplace for workers with mental illness. Workplaces are also required to support mental health, based on how you are performing in the job, without needing you to formally disclose your mental illness.
You also have rights to privacy and you cannot be terminated purely for having a mental health concern. It’s ideal for managers to ask if there is any assistance or workplace adjustment that could assist you in performing your job. And offer the choice of seeking confidential support from an Employee Assistance Program or equivalent outside professional advice.
The Workers Mental Health Guide has detailed information to help you understand what are considered ‘reasonable adjustments’.
Having the conversation
Making the decision to share your mental health with your boss is one huge step. But now for the next one: actually having the conversation. Here Tahnee shares her tips for making the meeting as stress-free as possible.
1. Choose a time when you are both unrushed and not distracted.
2. Share your intention and be solution focused. For example, ‘I’d like to share some information about myself with you because I feel it would help with…’
3. Be prepared to answer questions and give them time to understand your strengths and challenges, and what adjustments you need to either prevent further impact to your mental health, or support your performance.
4. Plan what you want to talk about and how you want to discuss the issues. You have the right to bring a support person to any meeting arranged with the purpose of discussing your mental health issues. You may also want to letter or the support of your mental health professional.