How to Communicate Mental Health to Your Boss

Mental health professional talks with female patient
••• asiseeit / Getty Images

If you are stressed by everything that's going on in the world, you’re not alone. It’s challenging enough to simply try to focus on work during a pandemic. It can feel overwhelming when you or your family is also impacted by, or concerned about, the economic, equality, and social justice issues that are now a part of our daily lives.

Mental health in the workplace has always been an issue, but perhaps even more so in the current climate. Many jobs are stressful, and trying to juggle commitments to achieve a work-life balance has been an ongoing challenge for many employees. 

Today, that stress can be compounded by everything else that’s happening around you. Trying to juggle your job, potential health issues, perhaps childcare or eldercare, or a family member’s job loss, for example, along with being socially isolated, can wreak havoc on your mental health. And when you’re stressed, losing sleep, and exhausted, it can become even worse.

Remember You’re Not Alone

However, it’s important to know that it’s not just you. Your coworkers may be feeling exactly the same way. Insurance firm Unum reports that, among U.S. workers, 46% either have known or know someone with a mental health issue.

These numbers are even higher among millennials (59%) and Gen Zers (64%). Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America report notes that 64% of Americans identify work as a significant source of stress and 59% could use more support.

Speaking to The Balance Careers, Jeremy Nobel, MD, Faculty, Harvard Medical School, and Founder, The UnLonely Project says, “Even in these tough times of physical distancing, no one has to go it alone. Loneliness and social isolation are commonly shared and collective mental health challenges and we are all grappling with difficult thoughts, feelings, and uncertainty. If you are experiencing prolonged feelings of distress or despair, you should reach out to any local resources or national hotlines for immediate support. We all need support from time to time.”

Steps to Take to Discuss Your Mental Health

What’s the best way of communicating your mental health concerns to your boss? Or is there someone else you should talk to first? Well, it depends on your company.

If you're uncomfortable with directly sharing your personal struggles, a good first step can be asking what, if any, mental health resources your employer has made available to employees should they need support.

In smaller companies, you may want to talk directly to your supervisor. If you work for a large company, you may be able to seek help from a human resources staff member or via an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if you’re not comfortable speaking directly to your manager.

When to Have a Conversation

The best time, if possible, to communicate mental health concerns is before these issues seriously impact your performance and well-being. 

If you believe your performance at work is being affected, don’t wait to ask for assistance. 

You don’t want to jeopardize your employment because the company isn’t aware of your mitigating circumstances, and, of course, you want to ensure you're doing everything you can to take care of yourself.

Decide Who to Talk To

The best option may be to speak to your boss, but you’re not obligated to talk to your manager if there are other paths to getting help.

Many people don’t feel comfortable discussing mental health, even though it's a significant workplace issue for many employees and employers. In fact, a Harvard Business Review study finds that 60% of employees have never mentioned mental health issues at work.

Companies have set up ways in which employees can directly and confidentially access mental healthcare. According to the aforementioned Unum report, 93% of respondents said that their company offers an EAP, which provides healthcare services (more on EAPs below). 

At companies with a human resources department, there may be a member of staff you can talk to and who can advocate for you.

How to Ask for Help

What’s the best way to ask for help? Ideally, it’s to have a one-on-one conversation with the person you choose to communicate with. If you’re working on-site, you can schedule an in-person meeting. If you’re working remotely, consider either a phone call or video chat request—whichever is most comfortable for you.

You may not need to request a specific outcome, and don’t feel that you have to. 

It may simply be the case that you want the organization you work for to be aware that you’re going through a difficult time. If you need more than someone to just listen, try to work out what could be helpful to you.

For example, you may need time off to schedule appointments with a counselor. If you’re working on a difficult project that is contributing to your stress or anxiety, there may be a way you can get help from a team member to get it done. If you need to juggle your work hours or get a more flexible schedule, that too could be worked out. Perhaps you need a leave from work. If so, you may be eligible for paid or unpaid leave from your job.

Have a list prepared of what could make your work life easier, so you can share it with your employer.

What Topics to Avoid When Speaking to Your Boss

How you talk to your boss and how much information you share depends on your relationship. You don’t need to overshare personal details; instead, you can simply say you have concerns, or talk in general terms about your stress, anxiety, or depression and how it’s impacting your work life.

There is no need to share the details unless it’s necessary. For example, requesting leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) will require medical information to justify why you’re requesting the leave.

Even though it’s a difficult situation, try not to blame your company or your manager. These are difficult times for everyone, and it makes more sense to ask for help and try to figure out a viable solution. Your employer has the same goal as you—to have happy and healthy employees, so try to keep the conversation positive.

Company-Provided Mental Health Benefits

A survey from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans reports that 87% of organizations in the U.S. offer mental health support, up from 69% in 2014. 

Employer-provided mental health benefits are an excellent way to get assistance with mental health concerns. You can tap into all sorts of services including counseling, referrals, and wellness programs. Such programs can help you establish a plan to ensure both your physical and mental health are optimal.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

Also known as an Emotional Assistance Program, an EAP is an employer-sponsored program that provides assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees with personal and/or work-related problems. EAP services are voluntary and free. You should be able to contact your organization’s program confidentially and directly if you need assistance.

Wellness Benefits

Over half (53%) of the employers surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) plan on offering apps to support sleep and relaxation. There is also an array of additional health and wellness resources available depending on your employer, as described below.  

Programs that help workers monitor and reduce their stress levels include:

  • Apps and programs to support relaxation, mindfulness, meditation, and sleep
  • On-site or online yoga, meditation, and mindfulness sessions
  • Exercise programs
  • Weight management programs
  • Substance abuse programs

Health Insurance Plan Benefits

Many health insurance plans cover mental health counseling. These programs have been expanded to offer phone and video telehealth counseling sessions and app-based texting. Check with your insurance plan to determine what coverage you’re eligible for and how to access it.

Helpful Resources

In addition to benefits provided by your employer, there are a number of phone, online resources and apps that can help you cope with these challenging times. 

This article is for informational purposes. If you are in crisis, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center, text HOME to 741741, and/or call 911 for immediate assistance.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
The NIMH provides easy access to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Veterans Crisis Line, and the Disaster Distress Helpline. There’s also information on how to find a healthcare provider.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Helpline
SAMHSA’s national helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance abuse disorders. Here, you can get immediate assistance and find treatment services.

Crisis Text Line
Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the U.S. at any time to get immediate assistance. A live, trained Crisis Counselor will respond from the online platform. The website also has advice on dealing with the coronavirus, anxiety, stress, depression, and loneliness.

UnLonely Project
The UnLonely Project has information for people in crisis including where to get support along with everyday resources that will help you handle loneliness, fill your time, and learn new things.

Mental Health Resources for POC Struggling Right Now
Through HYPEBAE, you can access a number of mental health organizations and resources serving the Black community, as well as the wider POC community.

25 Mental Health Apps
PSYCOM’s list of free or reasonably priced mental health apps offer resources that make therapeutic techniques accessible and affordable, especially for those who don’t have health insurance coverage.

Employment Law Protections

Federal Laws

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protection for workers with health conditions. If you have a mental health condition, you are protected against discrimination and harassment at work because of your condition, you have workplace privacy rights, and you may have a legal right to secure reasonable accommodations that can help you perform and keep your job.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides leave for qualified workers. Anxiety, PTSD, major depression, stress, or another mental health event may qualify as a serious health condition under the FMLA.

State Laws

All states and Washington, D.C. have legislation that provides mental health services, insurance, or benefits. Coverage varies by location, so check with your employer or state department of labor for information on benefits in your state.

Bottom Line

Know That You’re Not Alone. The majority of Americans identify work as a significant source of stress and could use more support.

Don’t Wait. If you need mental health services, don’t hesitate to ask for help. There are resources available to provide assistance.

Be Aware of Available Resources. Most company-provided health insurance covers mental health, and some employers also offer wellness programs. Check out the free resources available if you don’t have employer coverage.

Know Your Rights. Employees with health conditions have legal protection under the ADA and FMLA. 

Article Sources

  1.  Unum. "Unum Highlights New Mental Health Research as U.S. Workers Face Challenges During Pandemic." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  2. American Psychological Association. "Stress in America Report 2019." Page 6. Accessed June 10, 2020.

  3. Harvard Business Review. "Research: People Want Their Employers to Talk About Mental Health." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  4. Unum. "Unum Highlights New Mental Health Research as U.S. Workers Face Challenges During Pandemic." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  5. International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. "Workplace Wellness Trends 2019 Survey Report." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  6. SHRM. "Employers Enhance Emotional and Mental Health Benefits for 2020." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  7. EEOC. "Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  8. SHRM. "Keys to FMLA, ADA Compliance for Mental Health Are Communication, Flexibility." Accessed June 10, 2020.