Anxious At Work? When To Talk To Your Boss About Stress

Eva Sanchez*, 25, works as a supervisor at a nonprofit supporting at-risk youth. As someone who has PTSD, depression, and anxiety — this work environment can often be triggering.
For a time, she felt too ashamed to bring up her mental health concerns with her boss. But eventually, Sanchez found the courage to breach the topic with her manager. “I took the casual approach at first since my work seem[ed] to have the ‘family’ dynamic of a nonprofit,” Sanchez said. “[But] my boss denied my request [for a less stressful shift] and asked for medical confirmation in order to grant me any further accommodations.”
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Millennials are sometimes called the most anxious generation; many of us have it (at least 19% of American adults or, in other words, nearly 62 million people). In a year filled with several high-profile mental health tragedies, several celebrities have spoken out about personal struggles, therapy, and mental illness, helping further move the needle forward on the national conversation about mental health.While recent surveys suggest a worrying trend of spiking anxiety among all generations, Millennials are worse off than their parents were.
Dealing with anxiety can be complicated enough on its own. While taboos around mental illness are slowly lessening, the reality is, it’s still hard — and kind of scary! — to talk to your boss about your mental health, particularly if you aren’t confident the conversation will be productive. As much as employers claim they need talented millennial workers, many haven't yet implemented tangible policies that would really make Millennials more comfortable at work (free snacks are great, but what good about mental health resources?). According to Finding Her Balance: Women’s Mental Wellness In The Workplace, a full 70% of women said their workplace either did not have a mental health policy or they were unaware of it.

"I can imagine others thinking I am 'slacking off' when I have to deal with my panic. I have missed work and worked from home more than others when things have gotten worse, which isn't great for optics.”

Lindsay Johnson*, 28, has generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia. She works at a large tech company as a copywriter, and her mental health has taken a considerable toll on her work. “A panic attack can come out of nowhere,” Johnson said. “My confidence has definitely taken a hit as I can imagine others thinking I am 'slacking off' when I have to deal with my panic. I have missed work and worked from home more than others when things have gotten worse, which isn't great for optics.”
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Johnson says she discussed her mental health issues with her boss, and the conversation went surprisingly well. Her manager was mostly positive, encouraging her to work remotely for the winter season in a sunnier location to curb her seasonal affective disorder and scheduling monthly mental health check-ins. Johnson’s employer also provides employees with a limited yearly stipend for mental health care, such as therapy, and Johnson has taken full advantage.
However, when Johnson requested further resources, all she received was a relaxing nature sounds CD and the book “Don't Sweat the Small Stuff." “I wish I was joking,” Johnson added.
Still, though Johnson admits that she generally feels “privileged” in her situation, she still worries about how her needs and accommodations might affect her upward mobility at the company. “I feel like I am stuck in my current low-stakes, low-visibility role,” Johnson said. “As if I would not be able to take on anything with more responsibility [since] I am always considering my need for a flexible schedule in case of a mental health hit.”

“I feel like I am stuck in my current low-stakes, low-visibility role [since] I am always considering my need for a flexible schedule in case of a mental health hit.”

Johnson’s concerns are valid: Recent surveys show that 85% of workers still believe there is a stigma attached to speaking out about mental health issues in the workplace. And while some workplaces have better policies than others, being candid about mental illness or other struggles continues to be a pervasive issue for workers — and a reason for staying quiet.
Jaime Klein, the Founder and President of Inspire HR and has worked in HR for over 20 years, says she's noticed a dramatic shift, but that stigmas persist. When considering how to talk to management about a mental health issue, Klein notes that every situation — every employee and employer — is different. Klein acknowledges that in some work environments HR can feel trustworthy, and in others this isn’t the case. Same goes for managers, not every worker will feel comfortable or safe speaking to their higher ups.
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Klein says that, right now, most leaders don’t have proper training on how to deal with workers’ mental illness — but they should. In fact, new research demonstrates the clear benefits of giving managers training on mental health. And while some companies are making actionable decisions to improve the mental health of their workers — DuPont recently started an educational program that encourages employees to reach out to co-workers who seem emotionally distressedmost companies still lag far behind.
Regardless of where one’s manager stands on knowledgeability of mental health, Klein recommends, once an employee has identified their go-to person, approaching them and letting them know four things: That they have health information to share that they would like to keep confidential, what their struggles are, what their needs or requests are, and that they are establishing a healing plan and actively working to get their health back on track.
“I would almost invite individuals to sub in ‘I have a broken bone’ in this conversation,” Klein said. That's because while mental health is just as important as physical health, individuals without personal experience with mental illness could fall short in their response. For this reason, Klein recommends using tangible terms like "resources," "healing plan," and "solvable," which can help assure your employer or manager that you’re committed to handling the situation.

“Mental health should be prioritized in the same ways that any other illness is. It should be okay to say, ‘Sorry, I have really bad anxiety today, can I work from home?’”

Given her boss’ less-than-ideal reaction to her mental health conversation, Sanchez hopes that managers will become better at hearing people’s needs and giving them the space to succeed at work. But she believes that this all starts with further eroding stigmas through awareness and education. “People who suffer from mental illnesses are perfectly capable, they just need the support to thrive,” Sanchez said. “Mental health should be prioritized in the same ways that any other illness is. It should be okay to say, ‘Sorry, I have really bad anxiety today, can I work from home?’”
Similarly, Johnson wishes that managers, and certainly workers in general, would strive to expand their conceptions of what mental illness actually is along with the many different ways it can show up. "Mental health issues can materialize in different ways — they don't always look like what you expect them to look like,” Johnson concluded, adding that professionals at all levels shouldn’t be so quick to judge others. “If you notice an employee withdrawing, this could be a sign of a mental health issue — [not necessarily] laziness or a 'bad attitude.'”
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*Name has been changed
If you are experiencing anxiety and/or depression and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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