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Can we talk? 6 ways to be open with your boss about depression

A psychiatrist and telehealth cofounder says mental health’s many stigmas make it hard for employees to broach the topic in the workplace. But they should and can without oversharing.

Can we talk? 6 ways to be open with your boss about depression
[Source images: Khosrork/iStock; Andre2013/iStock]
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From COVID-19 and social and racial justice movements to wildfires and the most polarizing election in recent history, there’s no shortage of things keeping people from feeling their best. According to the CDC, one in three Americans is showing signs of clinical anxiety—up from one in 10 a year ago. Eleven percent of US adults seriously considered suicide in June. 

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It’s no wonder workers are feeling burned out. According to research from the IBM Institute for Business Value, while managers feel they’re doing a good job of supporting staff through the countless changes we’ve endured this year, employees say they’re tired and overworked. Not even half of employees believe their organization is doing enough to help them with their well-being while 80 percent of employers believe that they are. 

This clear lack of alignment between employers and employees is a dangerous and slippery slope. And unfortunately, whether it’s because of fears around job security or being treated differently, mental health’s many stigmas make it hard for employees to broach these topics in the workplace. For many, when it comes to talking about mental health at work, they don’t even know where to begin. 

Here’s how to get the conversation going:

Review company values and benefits

Bringing up a topic you find stressful with your boss is never easy. When it comes to your mental health, it can be hard to know where to start. Begin preparing for the conversation by reviewing company materials like core values as well as your health benefits. You might find a perfect kicking off point—whether it’s by leading with a core value that prioritizes your well-being or something more specific from your health coverage. This should make you feel more comfortable because your starting point is reinforcing something that the company has already committed to. If your employer does not offer mental health and/or stress management education or programs, you could kick off the conversation by encouraging that they start doing so. 

Embrace commonality

According to the CDC, one in three Americans is showing signs of clinical anxiety—up from one in 10 a year ago. Never has mental health been at the forefront of the national conversation like it has in 2020. That should make bringing this up easier for you. Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance your boss is also struggling. Pay close attention to clues that suggest this. Perhaps your boss mentioned in passing that they’ve had a hard time in their personal life. Bridging their experience to yours in an empathetic way can be a good lead-in. In the absence of that, you can always lead with the aforementioned statistics as an ice breaker. 

Don’t feel pressured to overshare

While mental health is hard to talk about, once you get going, you might find that you’re revealing details you didn’t plan or need to. When “asking” for something at work, our default is to create a case that justifies what we’re asking for. Because this is your health we’re talking about, drop that habit. You don’t need to tell your boss, “I’m experiencing clinical levels of anxiety” or go deep on any subset of issues. Instead you could simply express that you’re having a hard time mentally and might need some flexibility over the coming months. Or that you’ve decided to start therapy so you wanted them to be aware of the ongoing time block on your calendar. 

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Be specific about what you need

Your boss doesn’t need a clinical overview of your symptoms, but in order for the conversation to be productive, you’ll need to come prepared with specifics around what you need. If you’ve recently started therapy, for example, and need that time blocked off on your calendar each week, tell them that. If you’re suddenly juggling distanced learning for your kids and need to adjust what hours you’ll be responsive, tell them that. Come up with what things you need to get you back to feeling your best and then ask for them. If you don’t know what you need, consider meeting with a professional to assess what the right practical guidelines are. My company, Brightside, offers a free online evaluation to get you started here

Let your calendar talk for you

We’ve covered that you need to be specific about what you need, so the natural next step is to make sure you implement frameworks so you continue getting what you need. Treat therapy or other mental health related activities like meditation or exercise like anything else that’s important to your well being. Block the time on your calendar, so your coworkers don’t book you on a call when you’re supposed to be in therapy. You don’t need to list what the event is because you’ve already covered this with your boss. Just make sure it’s clear that you are not available at that time. 

Emphasize your own pillars of wellness

Beyond speaking with your employer, there are things in your control that can help you better manage this challenging period. Take part in activities that promote stress management and relaxation, such as exercise, yoga, and meditation. Do your best to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, and aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep at night. Allocate time toward building and nurturing real-life, social connections where you can be open about your struggles. That will make it easier to reflect on any positive experiences with gratitude. Lastly, it’s critical that you draw clear lines between work time and relaxation time. Don’t live in the perpetual gray zone of being responsive and “kind of” working. It’s easy to fall into working half-heartedly all the time during the pandemic. So, adhere to a schedule of when you are focused on work and when you are not—then stick to it. 


Dr. Mimi Winsberg is cofounder and chief medical officer of Brightside, a mental health telemedicine service.