How I spoke to my boss about my mental health

Wednesday 14 February 2018
How would you tell your manager about your mental health struggles? And how would it affect your own management style if you did? One writer reveals all
Woman stressed, putting her hand on her head whilst holding a coffee

There was a point, not that long ago, where every day on my way to work, I would fight the little voice in my head that would urge me to walk in front of the train as it pulled into the station. I would picture the hurt it would cause my friends and family and resist.

It took me a long time to admit that anything was wrong – to myself or to others. I think I was scared to find out what it might mean for my future. I thought it might kill my career, or at least stall it. Unfortunately, I was right, though it turned out to be more survivable than I first thought.

I was working in a large corporate firm the first time I told my manager about my anxiety and depression. Being a large company, I thought they’d be better equipped to manage it. My manager tried to be understanding, but as much as she tried, she couldn’t really empathise.


It wasn’t her fault, necessarily; she had no tools or resources that she could call on to help her tackle the situation in the right way. She told me to “Keep my chin up,” which isn’t a very helpful thing to say to someone with depression.

Her superiors were even less understanding. In fact, they went out of their way to make the working environment more difficult for me to navigate. I was told regularly that I was being “too negative” and that senior management were noticing my ‘attitude’. It became too much to deal with. That little voice in my head was a constant presence, and shouting it down was exhausting. I left the company with no other job to go to, and booked an appointment with a therapist. It genuinely felt like a life or death decision.

Over the course of my therapy, I was able to take control of my illness, build up my self-esteem, and develop coping methods for when the feelings returned. Now I’m a manager myself, my own experiences have left me with a lot of empathy for the experiences of others, which is key if you want to manage mental illness in the workplace effectively.

For people that haven’t experienced mental health issues of their own, it can be hard to understand. I doubt any of your staff would expect you to be able to fully put yourself in their shoes. What they want to see you do, however, is make the effort to understand it better.


Do your research

  • There are many resources available that offer advice on dealing with mental illness for friends, family, colleagues and managers. Read up on the condition, learn what helps and what exacerbates it.

Listen to that person (really)

  • Ask them what they think will help them cope, come up with a plan to manage their recovery in the workplace and make sure you put it in place. Make sure they feel valued; that support will help them recover more quickly. Encourage them (gently) to speak to their doctor about their condition if they haven’t already.

Arrange regular meetings

  • As part of your plan, it may be worth putting in regular catch-up meetings in order to check in on how an employee is doing. You need to strike a balance with this; clearly you need to be able to monitor the situation, but you don’t want to overwhelm your employee. Some people with social anxiety, for example, may worry about what colleagues are thinking if you’re having meetings with them on a regular basis.
  • If you suspect that someone on your team might be struggling on a regular basis, there’s nothing wrong with asking them if everything is alright, and letting them know that you’re there if they want to talk about it. Don’t force the issue if you can avoid it, and don’t try to work out what’s going on with them without speaking to them. You could get it very wrong.

Monitor stress levels

  • A simple way to help tackle mental health issues in the workplace on an ongoing basis is to promote wellness and a good work-life balance. There are countless studies on the impact that toxic working environments can have on mental health. Something as simple as encouraging team members to socialise with each other can make a difference.

Allow flexible working

  • Ask what accommodations you can make to the workplace in order to make the employee’s working life a bit easier. This might involve allowing flexible working hours, arranging a quiet space in the office to work in, or allowing them to leave early for therapist appointments. What you do will depend on the individual.

Again, it all boils down to understanding. I’ve coped best with my mental health issues when I’ve had a supervisor that’s really listened to me and tried their best to get their head around what I’m going through. It made me feel really supported at work, which meant that I didn’t have to worry about it – I could concentrate on getting better.

It will never be easy; mental illness is incredibly intangible, and symptoms vary wildly from person to person. Never forget that whatever they’re experiencing, it is real.

Image credit: Shutterstock