Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness Column

Why you and your boss should talk honestly about your mental health: Jennifer Moss

Happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss says people need to be open about their mental health at work and with their boss when they can because in challenging times, the most important person is you and your health. 

'Getting help is an important first step,' writes Jennifer Moss

Happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss says it's important to let your employer know if you're struggling with your mental health. 'We are in challenging times, and the most important person in this scenario is you and your health,' she writes. (liza54500 / Shutterstock)

The pandemic has increased stress in all areas of our lives but particularly at work.

According to my research that analyzed well-being during the second COVID-19 wave, 85 per cent of people said their well-being has worsened during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, only 45 per cent of employees feel like they can talk about mental health with their boss

There are consequences to keeping our mental health issues a secret. Our research found that 65 per cent of people who don't feel comfortable openly discussing mental health at work experienced burnout often or extremely often. So, how can we make it easier to talk to our boss about mental health? 

First, we must acknowledge the barriers. 

Understanding stigma 

For anyone who is not familiar with the term in behavioural health, "stigma" is defined as a level of shame, prejudice, or discrimination toward people with mental-health or substance-use conditions. Stigma existed long before the pandemic and persists today, despite the intensification of stress during the pandemic. 

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The National Academy of Medicine defines three primary forms of stigma:

  • Self-stigma occurs when we internalize and accept negative stereotypes. 
  • Public stigma (or social stigma) is the negative attitude of society toward a particular group of people. 
  • Structural stigma (workplace stigma) refers to system-level discrimination – an example of this can be found in one study where 30% of respondents feared that discussing their mental health could cost them a promotion or even lead to being fired.

Unfortunately, 75 per cent of employers acknowledge the presence of stigma in their workplaces. 

So, how can employers reduce stigma at work? 

Increase manager and employee training. Start at onboarding with simple mental health 101 and keep educating people on the topic as part of a cultural shift – not just a year or two-long advocacy program.

Focus on reducing discrimination. It's essential to offer more culturally sensitive mental health solutions as part of your broader mental health portfolio. According to Springhealth, an advocate for reducing discrimination in healthcare, "Every group will face unique challenges but there are some employees who will face more barriers to treatment due to institutionalized racism and other forms of discrimination." 

Change the way we talk about mental health. Learn what language leads to stigma and discourage its use. Also – speak openly about mental health. Have regular conversations about the topic so it's culturally normalized. 

Provide mental health benefits. And don't take it for granted that every employee knows how to access corporate mental health tools. In one study, millennials were 63 per cent more likely than boomers to know the proper procedure for finding company mental health support.

Check in. More frequent engagement with employees about non-work-related topics can develop trust which leads to a more psychologically safe workplace. A weekly meeting to talk about what is going on that has nothing to do with work can open more channels of communication and feedback.

When setting up a time to talk to your boss, make sure the timing is right and that there is sufficient time to discuss how you're doing so you don't risk cutting the meeting short.  (Shutterstock)

Benefits of mental health openness at work 

Kate Toth, PhD in health psychology and director of learning and development at WorkWell, says if employees feel comfortable to disclose, they can request accommodations that would help them to better perform their job.

A less obvious one, Toth shares, is that it takes a great deal of energy and resources to closely guard a secret: If I'm spending so much energy trying to make sure no one knows that I'm struggling, then that is energy that I don't have to channel toward my work.

According to author Morra Aarons-Mele in a Harvard Business Review article, "Mental illness is a challenge, but it is not a weakness. Understanding your psyche can be the key to unleashing your strengths."

Some of the benefits she cites are: 

  • Increased ability to empathize with clients.
  • Concern for others and the world around you can make you a more thoughtful and in tune boss.
  • It can also help foster a desire to forge new and interesting paths. 
  • Plus, when we acknowledge our mental health, we get to know ourselves better, and are more authentic people, employees and leaders. 
  • Research has also found that feeling authentic and open at work leads to better performance, engagement, employee retention and overall wellbeing.

How to talk to your boss about mental health

First, take some time to assess and write down what you are feeling and why. It's always good to come to a conversation prepared. You can refer to your notes in the meeting if you need to. 

Then assess what you think you may need. Are you feeling overwhelmed with workload or are their issues with other team members? Is it a workplace stress or a something in your personal life that's impacting you? Do you just need a safe place to talk? Having this conversation with yourself first will make you feel more mentally organized. 

Then ensure the timing is right. Is this a good time for your boss? Do they have a hard stop that forces you to rush through the conversation? Do either or both of you have to go into a meeting after this conversation — if so that may be challenging if your emotions are high.

Make sure there is sufficient time to discuss how you're doing and that you don't risk cutting the meeting short. 

I agree that this is a hard conversation to have with your manager. For anyone who is concerned about repercussions for having this conversation with your boss, consider that human resources may be a better option.

However, if you feel like you can trust your manager to talk about your needs, please do so. We are in challenging times, and the most important person in this scenario is you and your health. 

We need to remind ourselves that there is no right way to feel right now. It's critical that in times of emotional distress that we put our needs first. Getting help is an important first step. 


Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member. She is based in Kitchener, Ontario.