Nearly 80% of UK adults feel uncomfortable discussing their mental health with their employer, according to research from Babylon Health. Here’s how to broach the subject and make this difficult conversation a lot easier.

Six years ago, Rebecca Hastings was fired from her job because she was suffering from a panic disorder, a mental health condition that is estimated to affect around 5% of the population at some point in their lives.

Panic disorder has been recognised as the fifth most disabling mental health problem in the developed world by the World Health Organisation. Rebecca would spend whole days at her desk thinking “incessantly” about dying, which would make her so dizzy she would have to lock herself in a toilet and put her head between her legs. The disorder also made her, in her own words, “distracted, shy and unenthusiastic”, ultimately leading to her dismissal from the company just two months after she first secured the job. She believes things could have turned out very differently had she felt able to talk to her manager about how she was feeling.

Rebecca’s story is far from unique. A 2017 report found that 300,000 people with mental health issues lose their jobs every year, a staggering figure that costs the UK economy up to £99billion – with untold costs to the individuals who lose their jobs when they’re already struggling.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly that people feel unable to talk to their bosses when they’re struggling with their mental health. A YouGov survey found that nearly two-thirds (61%) of Stylist readers agree it’s important for people to talk about their mental health, but bringing up the topic with your manager can feel daunting – especially when you’re already struggling.

It’s important to remember that you are not alone. A 2020 study of almost 44,000 employees, conducted by mental health charity Mind, found that nearly half (48%) of respondents had struggled with mental health issues such as stress, low mood and anxiety while working at their current job. Only half of these people spoke to their managers about it.

While we have made great strides in our approach to mental health, there is still an indisputable stigma attached to the topic, especially when related to work, and this can make it difficult to broach the subject with someone senior to you. 

Mental health struggles are still more of a taboo than physical health struggles, and there seems to be a misconception that we should be able to push down our feelings and get on with the task at hand – in fact, 84% of people would continue going to work when struggling with their mental health, compared to just 58% of people who would continue going to work when struggling with a physical problem. This needs to change.

“If you were in the workplace suffering from migraines you would feel much more confident approaching a manager to say you need a break, and we want people to feel the same way about mental health,” Faye McGuinness, head of workplace wellbeing programmes at Mind, tells Stylist.

McGuinness adds that part of the solution to the issue lies in employers creating a working culture that would support people opening up about their mental health issues.

“First and foremost, it goes back to the culture that’s been created in the organisation,” she says. “It’s important to recognise that people will have mental health problems and to provide them with the right support.”

Ultimately, she says: “For someone to speak about their mental health, they have to be working in a culture where they feel able to do so.” 

So, how can you raise the subject of your mental health with your manager, and what support can you expect? Additionally, if you are a manager yourself and one of your employees comes to you to discuss a mental health issue, how should you respond?

Here, McGuinness shares her expert advice.

When should I talk to my manager?

“We recommend you speak to your manager as soon as you feel able to. Lots of people experience stress in the workplace and we know that some stress is good – some people thrive off it, for example, and it can even help motivation. 

“But when that stress continues for a long time and starts to have an impact on your day to day life, not just in work but outside of work too, that’s when you can start to identify that there might be a problem and you can talk to your manager right away.

“If you’re feeling consistently stressed at work then that conversation needs to happen sooner rather than later.”

What should I say?

“You should only say what is comfortable for you. And there isn’t necessarily anything you shouldn’t say, as we should be creating work cultures where you feel able to be completely open and talk about it if you are struggling with your mental health.”

How much information should I share about my mental health?

“This has to be down to the individual and what you feel comfortable with. Everyone is different, so we wouldn’t prescribe how much information someone should divulge. We would say the individual needs to recognise what’s right for them.

“However, people do need to get the right support at the right time, before things escalate too much. So we would want people to be as open with their managers as they can be, as far as they are comfortable.”

What support can I get from my manager?

“The government’s Thriving at Work report outlines six core standards that are recommended for all employers to implement, regardless of sector or size.

These are:

•Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan.

•Develop mental health awareness among employees.

•Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling.

•Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work-life balance and opportunities for development.

•Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors.

•Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

“Your manager might also offer you flexible working, such as working from home or working shorter hours.

“They should let you know what support is available through the company, such as an employee assistance programme or any other type of wellbeing or mental health support, and tell you how to access it if you need to.

“Personal development can also have a huge impact: employees who are developed and pushed in their roles, in a positive way, can have much better mental health. So it’s important that your employer offers you opportunities to develop, learn and grow.”

And if you’re a manager…

“We need to recognise that we put a lot of pressure on managers: particularly to support their staff and look after them, which is completely right. But many managers are not specially trained or skilled in dealing with mental health, and they may not have the confidence to do so. Therefore, we need to make sure they feel equipped to have those conversations.

“We should provide training to line managers so they know how to respond when someone discloses that they have a mental health problem, and remind those managers that they’re not mental health practitioners, but they are there to listen and to signpost. It’s particularly important to have something like Mind’s Wellbeing Action Plan in place, so managers can understand what their staff need, what some of their triggers are, and what support they can offer.

“Giving managers the skills to have that confidence is a really big thing. After all, if someone struggling goes to their manager and they shut the conversation down because they don’t feel confident talking about it, that might deter the individual from going on to get further support.”

What should I say?

“There are questions you might want to ask, and questions you might want to avoid. The right questions include: 

  • How are you doing at the moment? 
  • How long has it been going on? (This will help you get a sense of whether this is something recent or something that has been going on for a long time.)
  • Is there anything I can do to help, and what would you like to happen? (It’s really important we empower people to be able to say what support they would like, rather than just assuming we know.)
  • You can also ask people what coping strategies they already have in place, and remind them that they may have tapped into these previously.”

What should I avoid saying?

“Avoid asking questions that are quite dismissive, such as ‘are you just going through a phase?’ Also avoid questions including, ‘why can’t you just get your act together?’ and ‘we’re all in the same boat and we’re all really, really busy – everyone else is OK, so why aren’t you?’”

How can I create a supportive culture for my employees?

“Having regular one-to-one meetings is really important – focus these on work but give your employee a chance to discuss their wellbeing, too. Wellbeing should always be on the agenda.

“If you manage a team, offer people an opportunity to talk about wellbeing in team meetings too, because then you create a culture where teammates can support each other as well.

“It’s also important to create physical space for people to talk about their mental health, such as a quiet room or somewhere you can take staff if they’re struggling, so you’re not having those conversations in the middle of the office.”

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with mental health issues at work, you can find more information on Mind’s website here.

This article was originally published on 18 May 2018 and has been updated throughout.

Images: Getty

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