It can be tricky, petrifying, and difficult to talk to your manager or potential manager about your mental health. But it’s a necessary conversation to have. Below are four suggestions for how to approach workplace conversations about your mental health.
1. Wait until after you’re hired
Proceed with caution when it comes to disclosing your mental health history during the interview process. In an ideal world, everyone would feel comfortable and open talking about mental health, but as a society we’re not quite there yet. Remember, the interview process is a two-way street. You’re selling yourself to the employer, just as the employer is selling itself to you.
As a result, the interview process (or even immediately after you're hired and meet your direct hire for the first time) is most likely not the best time to disclose your diagnosis or current needs. Talking about the specifics of when you were diagnosed with bipolar disorder or how you have challenges with chronic depression might be too much personal information for your initial meetings. Your medical history shouldn’t come into play in the decision to hire you or other candidates.
2. Involve HR and your manager
Say that you were hired, you’re contributing to a team, and you’re good at your job. You’ve kept your mental health condition a secret—other than perhaps telling one colleague whom you feel you can trust. Your mind and moods are under control, and you want your boss to notice your work, not the stigma of your mental health condition. It’s been easier to tell your boss a few white lies, like you’re going to the dentist rather than to see your therapist.
However, recently, you’ve been feeling overwhelmed, and your work is starting to suffer. Now’s the time to talk to your boss about modifications to your schedule and how you plan to complete any outstanding projects. And to do that, it’s best to schedule a one-on-one with your manager. It can also be a good idea to include HR if there’s an HR department at your company, since HR will be taking care of any paperwork processing for special circumstances, such as if you need extra time off.
Hopefully, when you speak with your boss and HR, you're met with understanding about what you’re going through.
3. Take notes and follow up
When you talk to your boss (and maybe HR) about your current challenges, take notes. Then, after your meeting, send an outline to your boss and HR. Include dates and any other goals of what you all agreed upon, including any alterations in your schedule or changes in deadlines.
This outline will ideally provide everyone with a summary of the mutually agreed upon expectations. It will also help your employer understand that this is a medical condition you’ll be able to manage along with performing your work.
4. Look for a safe zone
If your boss isn’t open to discussing your needs, or you feel like it’s unsafe to speak to your boss, then turn to HR. You could suggest to human resources that you move to another department that’s a better fit. Again, it’s a good idea to take notes in this meeting, as well as follow up with what was discussed.
For other resources to investigate and learn how your job is protected by federal law, see the U.S. Department of Labor Fact Sheet on Mental Health and American Disability Act.
E.B. Howell is the author of As Much as I Care to Remember, a novel based on her own experiences with bipolar disorder. Raised in Winston-Salem, N.C., E.B. graduated from Furman University and obtained her master’s in journalism and public policy at American University. In New York City, she assisted health organizations with patient advocacy, serving as the Scientific Communications Director of the National Kidney Foundation and as a Communication Specialist at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund. E.B. currently works in health care and lives in Beaufort, S.C., with her husband. Learn more about E.B. Howell at www.ebhowell.com and on Facebook and Twitter.
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