Should I tell my boss about my mental-health issues?
PROBLEM: I’ve been suffering from anxiety and depression for a long time and have always managed to keep going through the ups and downs. However, I am now in crisis as my work is seriously suffering. I am not sure what to do. I take medication; otherwise the depression can lead to suicidal thoughts. It is so hard to get out of bed, and when I eventually get to work, I can’t focus on what I am doing. I know I am falling behind and it is being noticed. My manager has given me targets to reach for this quarter, and I know I am failing on every one.
My question is whether to tell work about my situation or not. I fear that it will affect my career prospects and that whatever chance I have of being taken seriously will evaporate. But if I don’t tell them, they will think I am lazy and careless. I live alone, but I have a mortgage to pay and I fear for the future.
ADVICE: Living with depression and anxiety is very difficult, and there is no doubt that stigma still exists about mental health in spite of many campaigns to address it.
The added difficulty is that now work can be where we get our validation, sense of purpose and self-esteem. It is difficult to challenge the structures at work when we are in the best of health, so it might well feel impossible now that you are struggling so much.
However, you say that if you do nothing you will be seen as lazy and careless, and this belief might damage any future career you may have. You need to address this issue in some way and now is the time to do it.
If possible, get some support at work from someone you trust, who knows the team or situation you are in. It is very powerful to talk about the situation with someone who is aware of the characters involved, and you may be able to devise a clear, gradual plan that does not give you too much exposure at too early a stage.
Most workplaces have policies that support mental health, and many companies run information and wellness days that incorporate mental-health issues. Information on your rights is readily available at Equality.ie and you may also be interested in looking up Dataprotection.ie (Equality and Mental Health).
You will need to be clear about what is stored on your file and how that may affect your career in the future.
The best outcomes come from employers who are sympathetic, because talking about your mental health can have benefits: you get immediate stress relief, it may be possible to agree a lesser workload or to create a shorter day for you for a number of months.
If the stress of worrying about work is taken off your plate, you might find your recovery speeds up and your return to full work capacity is then almost guaranteed.
Your boss would have confidence in your honesty and ability to handle yourself in difficulty and the working relationship would become stronger over time. However, you would need to know that this reaction is a possibility, as a negative reaction might deepen your depression and cause further stress and anxiety.
Many employers mean well but find it difficult to cope with someone going through mental-health difficulties. Many companies now offer support services to employees on a confidential basis; if this is available in your company, it might signify that the organisation will be understanding and open to working with your plight. If it is not, you may need to consider carefully how you bring your issues to the attention of your employer.
A good idea is to have a clear list of all your accomplishments and contributions over the period you have been in the organisation. This will give you confidence and remind you of your capacities. Be wary of overdisclosure: the organisation only needs to know of the broader issue and of your plan to deal with it.
It will be helpful if you are clear about what would help in practical terms from the organisation and you have a time frame for dealing with it. Having a support person with you may help – this is not a sign of weakness but shows self-awareness and self-confidence. Taking charge of how this situation evolves is a powerful vindication of your rights as a human being and will dictate how you should be treated.