How to tell your colleagues, boss about your mental health issues

Bruce Ross suffered through depression for four decades of his financial career, rising despite that burden to become senior vice-president of Sarnia, Ont.-based Mainstreet Credit Union. It took him a number of years to realize his emotional malaise that started at puberty actually had a name – his wife making the initial diagnosis, confirmed by a doctor – and a further 10 years before he opened up to his CEO about the situation.

That boss was supportive and a couple of decades later Mr. Ross feels such a reception is even more likely in such situations given the enhanced knowledge about depression and mental health issues. “In most cases, you should be comfortable going to your boss,” he said in an interview. Because it’s a sensitive topic, he advises you to bring it up like he did over a lunch or some other private discussion, with phones on forward.

Before that, when you first sense you might have depression, get a diagnosis and accept it. Then learn all you can about it and try treatments. In his book Breaking Free of Depression’s Griphe details a series of 20 different medications he took over the years and other treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy and deep brain stimulation, none really working until his most recent antidepressant, Rexulti, which has been like a dike holding back the surging depressive waters. “If the first treatment doesn’t work, don’t give up. One of the characteristics of depression is losing hope,” the now-retired executive said.

Before sharing with colleagues, Melissa Doman, an organizational psychologist and former clinical mental health therapist, recommends asking what specifically do you want to share and why? Who do you want to share with? What will change for you at work by sharing? What next steps are you hoping for?

The conversation will vary depending on who you choose to approach. Don’t try to write a script. That’s not how conversation happens. “It won’t work to speak to them as you would want to be spoken to – you need to plan to speak to them as they would best understand you,” she writes in her guidebook Yes You can Talk about Mental Health at Work.

With a fact-oriented boss, she suggests opening this way: “I have been feeling really depressed and it’s preventing me from focusing on my work. I need to speak to you because you’re my manager. I want you to know what’s going on, and I want to chat about how we could hopefully shift my workload a little in the next few weeks while I address this with my therapist and doctor.”

On the other hand, you might tell an emotion-oriented and empathetic colleague: “I’m feeling really stressed out and I feel like I have no one to talk to. I’ve always enjoyed working with you and I feel you are a good listener – could we talk?”

Don’t hint vaguely at the need at some point to discuss some matter. Too often, she hears stories about how such signals are missed given how busy everyone is these days. Specifically, ask for some time to catch up on things. Then make sure you get sufficient time for them to learn about the situation and process the information, in a comfortable location. If you want what’s said to be private, make that clear when the meeting starts.

Also be clear about why you are raising this with that individual and what your goal is. Do you just want them to listen or are you expecting some favorable action, like referral to the employee assistance program? Maybe you simply want to acknowledge you have been acting differently at work, suspect they have noticed, and want them to understand what’s happening. Use the time to educate them on the nature of your mental health struggle.

And don’t be afraid to be emotional. “Crying, frustration and anger are displays of natural emotions. Resist the urge to apologize for experiencing these emotions or feelings, and just let them flow naturally,” she writes.

quick hits

  • Think of your message in meetings like a tweet, cutting back to the essence if you are prone to rambling, advises executive coach Anne Sugar. Or think like an editor, eliminating words to compress your thoughts. At the same time, build in pauses for people to digest what you say.
  • Silicon Valley executive Deb Liu sees people coming to job interviews with a neutral, subdued stance like they could work at the organization interviewing them or at any number of others. Don’t make that mistake. Come in curious and enthusiastic, making it likely the interviewer will reflect that attitude back onto you.
  • Values ​​aren’t just for companies, says executive coach Suzi McAlpine. Define your values, rank them because you may have to choose between them, and practice them daily.
  • Most big, deeply satisfying accomplishments in life take at least five years to achieve, grades author James Clear. That means you should start immediately: “If you resist the reality of slow progress, five years from now you’ll simply be five years older and still looking for a shortcut.”

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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