How to discuss mental health at work without feeling like you've said too much

How to discuss mental health at work without feeling like you've said too much

When calling in sick due to a headache, it’s simple and easy to do – one sentence and the call is done.

However, when calling in sick due to mental health issues, it can be an entirely different experience.

You might not want to disclose all the personal details, yet find yourself overexplaining or justifying why you’re too unwell to work.

A survey by BHSF, a health insurance provider, found that 40% of workplace absence is due to mental health issues – this even trumped Covid absences, according to a separate survey by GoodShape in their 2021 health report. This is projected to rise to 70% by 2023.

The BHSF survey also found that 30% would not feel comfortable discussing any mental health, physical health, grief or financial concerns with their line manager.

Most shockingly, the research found that 54% of workers who take two or more mental health-related absences will go on to leave their jobs.

Clearly there is an issue of communication here.

Claire Brown, a certified career coach, tells us that employers need to create an environment in which employees feel safe to disclose issues.

She says: ‘It’s important to seek out help if you’re suffering from stress and by telling your employer about your situation you’re then enabled to access the support you need.

‘You’ll want to think about the best way of approaching the conversation, the extent to which you want to share personal information and with whom you’re happy for this information to be known.’

For those occasions, there are ways to make explaining ill mental health that bit easier.

What do you legally have to disclose?

‘You are not legally required to disclose a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety in the workplace and sharing this with anyone is your personal choice.

‘However, by sharing about your situation you then have a stronger basis for requesting support and to discuss potential changes in your working arrangements as needed.

‘If your condition is recognised as a disability you have a right to reasonable adjustments and are also then protected by the Equality Act to ensure you are not discriminated against on the basis of your condition.

‘If you need to be off work for more than 28 days, you will need to provide proof of illness from your GP who will advise whether you are fit for work or not fit for work.’

– Claire Brown, career coach

Consider who to talk with

The first port of call is your line manager, but they might not be trained or equipped for a conversation like this.

Claire says: ‘You might want to find out if there’s an in-house stress management policy to review their processes and to see what help is on offer.

‘There might be Mental Health First Aiders and trade union representatives who can be involved in the conversation, or you might try calling any free helplines you have access to for advice.’

There’s also HR for most companies, and that might be a more detached way to explain the problem that can then be relayed to your manager.

Plan ahead

Claire says: ‘Prepare for the conversation, think ahead about to what extent you feel happy to share that affords them enough clarity to be supportive whilst maintaining the degree of privacy you require.’

It could help to bullet point out what you want to say, almost like a script, so that you’re factual and don’t run the risk of oversharing any details you want kept private.

Doing so will help you feel more in control of the conversation.

Think about your language

Talking about mental health can make us emotional, with good reason.

‘If the conversation becomes too emotional, you can at any point ask to pause the discussion and either take a break or reschedule for another time once you’ve regrouped,’ Claire says.

Equally, if you don’t want to answer any questions that feel uncomfortable or too personal you can politely redirect the conversation.

She continues: ‘Try to approach the conversation honestly and openly by taking ownership of your condition and the impact this is having upon your work.

‘State that it feels a difficult conversation to be having if that’s the case.

‘Ownership and blame are not the same thing. You don’t need to apologise for the issues you’re experiencing but recognising that there is an impact in the workplace may well help to elicit a more empathetic response.

‘Try to avoid generalisations and instead be as specific as you can about the ways in which your work is being impacted by the stress. Just share the key details about your condition – you don’t have to share anything too personal if you’d prefer not to.’

To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.

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