How to Talk to Your Boss About Mental Health

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. This means that if you look around your office, a handful of your coworkers are struggling with mental illness in some capacity. If you are one of these individuals struggling, it can be difficult to figure out the best way to handle it at work.

One of the most challenging things can be deciding if and when to let your boss know about some of the mental health challenges you’re facing. Sometimes, mental health challenges are less extreme and more manageable. In these situations, you may or may not say something. However, oftentimes mental illness can have a bigger impact on your life and job making it necessary for you to let your boss in on what is going on.

As a government employee, this conversation and the next steps after it may look a little different than it would in the private sector. Fortunately, there are public-sector specific resources that can help you navigate a conversation about mental health with your supervisor in a government organization. Additionally, we put together a few tips on how to talk to your manager about your mental health to help you get the most out of the conversation.

Have a plan for what you want to say. Setting up a time to talk to your boss about any mental health issues you are having is a good first step to ensure that your illness is not having a negative impact on your work. However, it is important to be mindful and remember that your manager is not your therapist or your mom or your best friend.

Have a rough script of what you plan to say during the discussion and decide before the fact how much about your situation you are going to disclose. It’s okay to go off script based on how your manager reacts to what you say, but have an outline of your key points and make sure you hit them all during the discussion.

An example outline of the conversation may look something like:

  • Thank you for taking the time to chat with me, I know I may have seemed a little off lately and I just wanted to inform you that I have recently been diagnosed with X. 
  • I wanted to make you aware of my diagnoses and let you know that I am actively working to not allow it to impact my work at the agency.
  • I may need some flexibility for doctors’ appointments, I anticipate my schedule looking like X for the foreseeable future. How can we make this work so my duties here are not negatively impacted?
  • Finally, are you aware of any resources that may be available to me through the agency and if not can you put me in touch with the department or person that does?

Know what you are asking for. If you are struggling with a debilitating mental illness, it is a good idea to make your boss aware. However, it is useful to go into the conversation with some tangible outcomes in mind as well as just bringing general awareness to your situation. These outcomes could include things like a more flexible schedule for when you start and stop the day, a longer lunch to accommodate seeing your therapist, or a more private workspace. Having specific goals for the conversation will make it easier for your manager to understand your situation and what accommodations you need to ensure you are still able to perform in the office.

Read their reaction. Unfortunately, there is a certain level of risk associated with disclosing mental health issues at work as many mental illnesses are still unfairly stigmatized. As you’re having your conversation with your supervisor, pay close attention to how they are reacting. If they do not handle it well, it can be useful to take a step back and explore other avenues for getting help with your mental health at work. However, many managers will be able to handle any mental health difficulties you are facing with ease and be an excellent resource or sounding board. Regardless of what kind of manager you have, it is still important to keep boundaries—leverage your boss’s resources and capabilities but don’t abuse their willingness to help.

Ask about resources. If your boss does respond well to your initial discussion, they can at least possibly be a person to turn to for additional resources. They may be able to put you in touch with a point of contact in HR that can help you keep your work life on track despite mental health challenges.

Additionally, if you work for the federal government, each executive branch agency has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that helps employees work through life challenges, including mental illness, that may adversely affect their job performance. Check out your agency’s EAP to learn what resources are available to you.

For additional mental health in the workplace resources, check out the federal mental health website, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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Beth Schill

Thanks for the great post, Courtney. It is also good to be aware that many mental health conditions qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thus it is illegal for your boss to deny anything that falls under a “reasonable accommodation,” or treat you differently as a result of your disclosure. It is good to discuss any such disclosure with a medical professional who can also provide verification of your illness, and to have an HR person in the room when requesting accommodations. Above all, it is very important to document any conversations of these sorts so that you can help protect yourself against discrimination in the workplace.

David Kuehn

Sometimes it is best to say you have a medical condition, are seeking assistance, are committed to getting better, and want to continue to work.

What a supervisor should want to know is what is the impact on performance. one difficulty with mental illnesses is it can be hard to provide an accurate prognosis of when symptoms will be under control.

The particulars of the condition only are relevant if you are seeking accommodation, in which case you may want to let the medical professional describe the condition, the impact on work, and the requested accommodation.