How To Talk To Your Boss About Mental Health
Illustration by Ms Ana Yael
Concerned about your work stress levels after 18 months of pandemic-related job craziness? Maybe you needn’t be. If their open LinkedIn posts are to be believed, business leaders are falling over themselves to express empathy with our feelings of burnout, redundancy anxiety, social alienation and fear of the Covid-19 virus itself.
Take Nike’s senior manager of marketing science, Mr Matt Marrazzo: “Do not work,” he wrote in his announcement of the company-wide week off that its employees enjoyed at the start of September. Dating app Bumble added an extra five days of paid leave for harried staff in June. Even finance firms have struck a rich vein of compassion. Mr Punit Renjen, CEO of accountancy firm Deloitte, recently trilled: “As business leaders, we have a responsibility to break down the stigma and bias attached to mental ill health.”
In the working year leading up to the pandemic, “work-related stress, depression and anxiety” was the number one reason for employee absence in the UK, accounting for just over half of all sick leave. With so many of us seemingly suffering, and the boss’ door apparently open to anyone who’d benefit from a wallow, has the workplace adapted to bad mental health?
We don’t blame you for being unsure. So MR PORTER spoke to psychologists and HR thought leaders, about how to really talk to your boss about mental health.
Share before things get desperate
“Try not to wait until you’re in crisis,” says Ms Lucy Adams, author of HR Disrupted. She was HR director at the BBC when Mr Jimmy Savile died, so she knows what she’s talking about. “Raising issues while you’re still calm is going to be easier for both you and your boss.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Stephen Blumenthal, who treated reality star Mr Joey Essex in ground-breaking documentary Grief And Me earlier this year, warns: “If you feel you can’t speak about your problem it will come out in other ways. Part of the suffering is that you have no wound to show the world, so you get noticed: perhaps getting smashed at the company do and making a spectacle of yourself, or I’ve known people make mistakes on purpose to prompt concern. It can be especially prevalent in macho workplaces like investment banking or elite sports.”
Find out where you stand legally
Mental health covers a broad spectrum, ranging from “severe” conditions such as schizophrenia through “mild” issues like phobias. Diagnosed mental health problems that have been rubber-stamped by a doctor, including bipolar disorder and adult ADHD, are considered disabilities under the 2010 Equality Act.
Firms are obliged to “make reasonable adjustments” for disabled staff including offering counselling, extra time off and support. The key word here is “reasonable”. If the company’s in no position to channel funds into employee wellbeing, this will be taken into account at any tribunals – which you essentially want to avoid anyway. Blumenthal says: “I’m all for carrying a sense of mild threat. But don’t go in all guns blazing with your legal position. Calm the situation down. If you’re giving off a sense of being threatened, you may receive defensive responses.”
You don’t need diagnosis of a mental health condition for your GP to give you a letter recommending sick leave for stress, in the same way they might for bad flu. Time off would form part of your legally permitted 28 annual days of sick leave.
YouTube research doesn’t carry the same weight. “When it comes to considering how well an employee might perform in the future, the response to someone self-diagnosing and passing that information on is still mixed,” says Adams. Try to avoid being labelled as simply neurotic and demanding. Instead, stay focussed on a mutually beneficial solution to a shared problem.
Remember your boss is human…
The landscape has certainly shifted towards more open conversations around mental health in the workplace: “Covid has helped because everybody has struggled in some way with the constraints of lockdown,” says Adams. “An understanding of mental health has filtered through to bosses – perhaps impressively so,” adds Blumenthal.
But although our experts are cautiously optimistic about airing your difficulties, they do urge you to remember that your mental health isn’t your employer’s only concern. “Even the loveliest line manager in the world finds themselves confronted with additional burdens when an employee says they need to take time out,” says Adams. “Most bosses care about their people. But they do need to find a solution that works for them, too.”
Often stress and anxiety are caused by breakdowns in communication within teams rather than mental health issues. “If you’re working with some autocratic micro-manager exhibiting toxic-like behaviour, the talk could make things even worse,” comments Mr Ben Whitter of HEX employee experience services.
While it’s best to presume positive intent, remember that your needs are not the only ones to take into account. Moreover, keep your sharing to a professional minimum if you think it may not be productive.
… And they may have experienced their own issues
Almost 50 per cent of entrepreneurial business leaders have experienced poor mental health – for instance, Monzo bank founder Mr Tom Blomfield quit the company he founded in January 2021 and publicly discussed the psychological demands behind his decision.
A personal anecdote: in a job interview at a FTSE 100-listed former employer, I was thrown a curveball about the counselling the firm had packed me off to many years before. After I fudged an unsatisfying response, the notoriously uncompromising suit across the table surprised me with some therapy-speak. He said, “The answer I was looking for was that it’s enabled you to work on yourself, grow as a person and be a more effective employee.”
It seemed the rumours around him also enjoying treatment paid for by the company were true. And he was right about the long-term benefits of prioritising mental health. Treatment usually involves taking time away from everyday activities to focus fully on psychological development; an opportunity that rarely presents itself. Clued-up bosses – certainly those who’ve undertaken the process themselves – are becoming aware that their business, as well as your happiness, will benefit.
Don’t race for closure
While you might be desperate for respite, “Don’t expect a solution straight away – there might not even be one,” says Adams. “Too many bosses jump in and take work away from people, or sign them off.” Soon you’re at home feeling useless, worrying that the gears are in motion to manage you out. “Simply airing your problems can make you feel better,” she adds. “Raising the issue, then regrouping a day or so later to discuss it can be more worthwhile for everyone than you taking time off straight away.”
Some of us express work-related stress inappropriately, through ranting and rage. “Anger compels action,” says Mr Mike Fisher, author of Beating Anger and founder of anger management association BAAM. “My client group act forcefully and impulsively because their anger demands closure. But life is rarely cut and dried. Uncertainty is to a certain degree inevitable, and some of us need to learn how to sit in the discomfort of our own emotions.”
In short: the situation might not be easy to rectify immediately. Be prepared for a degree of ambiguity as the process unfolds.
Consider the situation at home
Working from home has skewed the picture. Our domestic situation may play a part in our work-stress levels. “Sometimes staff are disappointed that their manger didn’t pick up on things,” says Adams, “but people are very busy. If you’re working remotely they can’t even see you, and not all line managers excel in emotional intelligence.”
If you’re experiencing challenges at home, but things are going well at work, be mindful of how you express yourself with your colleagues. “People who feel autonomy at work but not at home will act out where they do have power,” says Fisher. Moreover, if a dynamic with work is flawed, this corrupts relationships. “Those of us with low self-esteem tend to be exploited in organisations and easily become overworked,” he says. “This will impact on our personal lives, perhaps causing substance addictions, too.”
Work and home are essentially inseparable when it comes to mental health, right now more than ever. Sensitivity and an inclination to change are tactful to deploy at both.
Attitudes to mental health in the workplace are almost certainly changing. And it’s not necessarily because bosses have discovered their empathic sides over lockdown. “Compassionate leaders and experience-driven environments make more money,” says Whitter, “Jeff Bezos is now saying that Amazon’s going to be the safest and best employer in the world. He knew the issues reported were starting to affect his business.” Vitally though we need to shape our own attitudes to wealth, status and what we find important. “That path of birth, education, work, mortgage, promotion, retirement, death is just history,” Whitter says. “And it needs to be, because it’s a locked-in pattern of behaviour that doesn’t help us achieve what we need.”
Psychologists put more value on meaning than status or wealth. “If there is no motivation, that in itself potentially constitutes mental health issues,” says Fisher, “which won’t just manifest psychologically but also somatically in the nervous system, and physically, too.” To truly take care of your overall health, seek purpose: whether that’s simply providing a key, fulfilling role within an organisation or “giving something back” through altruistic initiatives.