There’s no right or wrong time to bring up your mental illness at work but a little planning will help pave your way.
The fear of stigma or of being viewed negatively in the workplace, can get in the way of getting the help you need. Even though awareness of mental illness has increased we’re still living in a world where people can face discrimination because of their illness. When you decide to approach your managers to discuss your illness, it’s important you feel safe and supported and this can be achieved by some careful planning ahead.
R U OK at work?
A healthy workplace culture needs to allow people to speak up about mental health concerns without shame or fear and to get the support they need. Employers and staff can help by asking and answering a simple question. R U OK? Day is dedicated to reminding everyone that any day is a good day to ask, “Are you ok?”. Go to ruok.org.au for resources to help you start that conversation.
Getting what you need
Mental health problems like depression and anxiety can create stressful situations in the workplace and make on-the-job challenges harder to handle. They can also stand in the way of achieving work goals, which can create even more job-related stress. Your boss or co-workers are not your therapists but they can provide support for you to continue to do your job well.
Planning the conversation
Planning what you’re going to say can help you to structure your ideas and the points you want to cover. You can also practise how the conversation might flow.
- Think about how you will describe your mental health condition. If you feel it’s in your best interests to be specific, then do so; otherwise, you can speak in general terms.
- You might want to share some details about your condition, which could include your diagnosis, symptoms, medications, and any specific treatment.
- Think about how much detail you want to share. It’s impossible to retract something once it’s been said, so only share details you’re comfortable with.
Back to basics
- Your employer might be more knowledgeable than you think. With close to one million Australians struggling with depression and two million with anxiety alone, it’s not unlikely that your boss has dealt with similar issues before.
- First speaking to a close co-worker or an HR officer you trust can be a good start. Their support can be invaluable and you can ask them to consider being in the room with you when you tell your manager.
- Think about when and where you prefer the meeting to take place. Are you more of a morning person? Do you want to chat over coffee in a cafe or organise a more formal meeting in the office?
- Think about what you will do if the conversation becomes negative, or you unexpectedly get upset.
- Prepare prompts or discussion points to keep the conversation on track and make sure you cover everything you want to.
- Outline what you think would help. For instance, more flexibility with deadlines when you hit a rough patch or days off as required to attend appointments.
Reframe your issue
FOCUS ON THE JOB: If you feel your mental health condition is affecting your productivity or performance, focusing solely on the impact it’s having on your work will make the conversation easier.
MAKE IT OFFICIAL: You might also consider getting a letter from a health professional to support you and confirm the diagnosis.
THINK PHYSICAL: Thinking of the issue in terms of physical health is one way to reduce the pressure. How would you approach the conversation if you were telling your boss that you had a physical problem and would need extra help or easier access to your workplace?
FACE THE FACTS: Fact sheets can be useful to help your employer understand your condition and make it easier for them to talk about it. You can get more information about anxiety and depression from beyondblue.org.au/resources.
Give your mental health a workout
Research has consistently shown that regular exercise is associated with a lower incidence of depression, thanks to the release of feelgood neurotransmitters, but the social aspect also plays a part. Heading out to the park, the gym, or taking a group workout class gets you out of the house and interacting with others, which can ease isolation, an important factor in mental wellbeing. If you prefer low-intensity exercise like yoga, you’ll be happy to learn that it also has mood-boosting benefits and, if it includes meditation, can help reduce anxiety.
Exercise also works to reduce the build-up of stress. Take a brisk walk when you’re feeling stressed, and you’ll experience deeper breathing and reduced muscle tension, both of which induce a sense of calm.
This article was previously published in the Well at Work Newsletter