As a result of the ongoing pandemic, there has been a rise in mental health issues like anxiety, depression and burnout.
With the blurring of boundaries, and now a transition into hybrid work, people are likely to feel overwhelmed, with the demands on them stressing out their coping resources.
If you’ve just been diagnosed with a mental health issue that might potentially affect your work, you might be considering whether or not to share it with your employer.
After all, despite the increase in awareness of mental health issues, there still remains stigma: both from yourself, as well as society.
Stigma related to mental health issues
Self-stigma refers to the negative attitudes—including internalized shame—that people with mental health issues have about their own condition.
For example, you might think of yourself as “weak” and feel ashamed of your condition.
Societal stigma is where people might discriminate or devalue you (and your abilities) because of your condition.
At the workplace, this might look like judging you to be “unable to produce” or that “it is an excuse to not put in as much work”.
As a result of stigma, it is understandable that you might feel apprehensive about sharing your diagnosis with your direct supervisor or employer. However, not sharing it can also have potentially negative consequences.
For example, it might reach a point where you are completely overwhelmed, thus compromising your work quality or affecting your team. On a personal level, it might result in having to take time off to heal and recover—a far more challenging path, since the damage has already been done.
Support yourself first
Before deciding if you are ready to share your condition with your supervisor or employed, remember that you need to take care of your mental health first by practising self-care.
Here are some ways to do so.
Challenge your own thinking
Self-stigma can be very debilitating and cause you to be mired in shame. Instead of immediately accepting the thoughts (e.g. “I must be weak”) you have about yourself, pause and challenge them.
Here are some helpful questions:
- Is it a fact or is it just a feeling you have at this moment? Sometimes it is just a feeling that comes and goes, and not something to do with your personality.
- Is this thought helping me or harming me? It is already tough going through what you are, and if having this thought increases that pressure, it might be harming you.
- What would my best friend say to me? It is likely that they will comfort you, instead of becoming a critic. Be kind to yourself during this challenging time.
Manage your emotions
- Pause and breathe. When you feel a swell of emotions, take time to check in with yourself and take some deep breaths. If necessary, take a walk to release the stress and calm your nervous system.
- Acknowledge your emotions. It feels tempting to suppress your emotions further because you feel embarrassed by them, or distract yourself. However, that means you will not get to understand them or learn how to better manage them. Instead, acknowledge them e.g. “I am feeling overwhelmed. Having too many things to attend to is challenging.”
- Express your emotions. Edith Eger, author of “The Gift” and a Holocaust survivor shares that “the opposite of depression is expression”. Finding a way to express your emotions can do wonders to your mental health – whether it is to talk to someone, or write it down in a journal. This helps you process your emotions, and prevents the emotional stress from building up.
Once you have utilized these strategies to manage your emotions, you then need to decide whether you feel ready to share what you’re going through with your employer.
Remember: if you’re not ready, you don’t have to feel pressured to do so. You might feel that at this time, you have more to lose than to gain, or need more time to come to a decision. In which case, be patient with yourself and don’t force the matter.
How to share with your employer
When you do feel ready, here are some steps you can take:
- Get clear on what you’re experiencing. Is it something acute and perhaps related to a current stressor (i.e. family issues, or a current project), or is it a mental health issue that is likely to last? This can help you consider the impact it might have on your work and be able to convey this clearly.
- Understand the purpose of sharing. Spend some time to think about why you want to share this information, and the outcome you hope to achieve. For example, are you sharing it so that you can be responsible to the team and receive support? Or is it that you may need to have some time off weekly? This can help you get clear on what it is you’re asking for.
- Share only what is necessary. Remember that sharing does not mean you need to go into the nitty gritty details. Think about what you are prepared to share and what you think will help your employer be able to better understand what you’re going through.
- Focus on your needs. Share what your needs are. For example: “I will need to come in later on Mondays so that I have time to attend counselling sessions. That will help set me up well for the rest of the week.” This helps your employer connect with your “ask” and the impact it is going to have.
- Offer solutions. Your employer is going to be thinking about how things might be different as a result of what you’re going through. Go prepared with solutions to mitigate some of these changes. For example, if you’re asking for a later start on Monday, you might suggest that you will spend time the week before talking to your co-workers to ensure there is no disruption to how the team starts the week. It is also possible to co-create potential solutions that result in a win-win situation.
- Be prepared for all possibilities (and responses). While you are hopeful about the conversation, you may want to consider that not everyone will respond positively the first time. Hence, you may want to have an idea of how you might respond if your employer is resistant, or is not able to fully comprehend the level of support you need.
Don’t let fear get in the way of your career
Mental health issues can feel like the most difficult burden, especially with stigma and a potential threat to your career.
You might feel that hiding it is the best approach and a way to self-protect; but it is more likely because you fear the (potential) negative consequences mental health might have on you and your career.
Ultimately, of course, it is your choice. As you read through the article, be sure to consider not just the fears but also the possibilities.