Sometimes telling your boss about a health issue is unavoidable, and mental health issues are no different.
It’s pretty straightforward to approach your boss if you need to schedule surgery or just broke your arm, but not so simple when it comes to disclosing a mental health condition. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can be hard to bring up with even your most trusted friends and family, and doubly uncomfortable if you need to talk to your boss about how your mental health is affecting your work, disclose a condition because you will need a bit of flexibility to seek treatment, or ask for accommodations to be able to do your job.
Addressing this sensitive topic with your boss is certainly not a recipe for a good time, but if you find it necessary to speak up, you can get through it more easily than you might think. If you take steps beforehand to make sure you’ve prepared exactly what you need to say, it might be less harrowing than you think to talk to your boss about what you need, especially if your mental health is affecting you during the workday. In high-powered law firms, depression, anxiety, and addiction are prevalent—not exactly a surprise in such a stressful, fast-paced environment. People may only speak about these things in hushed tones at this point, but those in legal environments are not completely unaware. Here are some helpful steps to take if you find you need to discuss your mental health with your boss.
Write it Down
Talking about mental health is a difficult step to take while simultaneously attempting to treat or manage the issues; because of the delicacy of the subject matter, you can get tripped up simply trying to figure out what you even want to say. Before you sit down with your boss, take a moment to write down exactly how you’d like to address the subject. Use bullet points, come up with language you’re comfortable with, and find a way to talk about your mental health with your boss in a manner that doesn’t cause you extra, unnecessary stress. Be hyper-aware of your wording, though; even though you might be afraid to be overly specific, using a more ambiguous word like “stress” might not get across the seriousness of your particular situation. If you are at all able and can get comfortable with the idea, put a clinical, official name to whatever you’re struggling with, and briefly define what it means. Ultimately, though, you need not disclose anything you feel is too personal.
Focus on Wanting to Avoid Affecting Productivity
Even if you and your boss are on good terms, it might not be an effective strategy to simply talk about your feelings. This approach might end up coming off as irrelevant to the workplace. When you sit down with your boss, make sure you can specifically address how depression, anxiety, or whatever you’re struggling with could begin to affect your day-to-day productivity and stress that you want to take every precaution you can to keep that from happening. You don’t want to put too much emphasis on ways that your mental health might negatively affect the firm if you don’t have to, but if there are instances or issues that your boss has likely noticed, acknowledge them.
If you discuss the problem with a focus on specifics, like why you’ve seemed distant during meetings or why you’re not as confident in court lately, you can then lay out concrete ways that you’re working to get back to your best self. Your boss may even empathize with you—you never know if they’ve struggled with something similar.
Consider Involving HR
Maybe you’re not particularly close with your boss, and worse still, maybe they can be harsh, thoughtless, or a little too blunt. If you have the sense that your boss won’t be sensitive or receptive even if you take an approach that feels reasonable, consider reaching out to a representative from human resources and asking them to join you when you sit down for a discussion. Having a mediator can be enormously helpful, if only to have a third person to listen with less of a personal stake and hopefully encourage understanding between the two parties. Remember: Your human resources department must keep whatever health information you share with them confidential.
Take Advantage of EAPs
Many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, as a free benefit. EAPs generally offer counseling and support for employees facing personal, professional, financial, emotional, marital, family, or substance abuse issues, as well as for their partners or spouses. They can be used for problems big or small, and of course, it’s all confidential. For instance, an employee might find herself drowning in the stress of taking care of a sick parent and experiencing high anxiety levels and sleeplessness that are beginning to impede her work. The Employee Assistance Program can recommend both mental health resources for the employee, and information on elder care services for the employee’s parent. Your firm might also offer other helpful resources you aren’t even aware of, as more law firms and corporations are getting into the wellness game. Your employer may offer free or low-cost meditation and mindfulness classes, yoga, or even massage therapy.
Don’t Sweat the Stigma
One of the biggest reasons people don’t address mental health, particularly at work, is the unfortunate stigma attached to mental health problems. People suffering from anxiety and depression are often encouraged to “just be positive” or “smile through it,” which are both blatantly unhelpful and unscientific pieces of advice. And unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of legal types dismissing mental health issues as not “real,” or viewing people who admit needing help as “weak.” The ignorance of others is not your problem, though—your job is to get well and to be able to function productively and happily. The best way to lessen any stigma is to make the issue less of a mystery, talk about it openly, and encourage others to do the same so that people will begin to realize just how common mental health issues are. That said, remember that you aren’t obligated to share anything with anyone if you are not comfortable, so do what feels right for you.