Is It OK to Reveal Your Anxiety or Depression to Your Boss?

By Rachel Feintzeig

Workers everywhere are having a tough time. Should they ask for help on the job?

The share of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression ballooned during the pandemic, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, rising to 40.9% by mid-July. A similar national survey from the first half of 2019 put that number at 11%.

For many, 2020 has ushered in fears of falling sick and losing a job, tension over the coming election and racial inequality, and a feeling of being overwhelmed by an untenable work-life juggle.

Meanwhile, some bosses are revealing vulnerabilities—such as a personal story from the CEO during an all-hands meeting or a crying child on a Zoom call—and asking, “How are you?” in a way that indicates they don’t expect a rote upbeat response.

So, should you answer honestly? And, if you are struggling with a mental-health issue, should you seek an accommodation such as a different schedule, extended remote work or a leave of absence?

“In some ways, the current crisis gives people cover,” says Jill Hooley, a psychology professor at Harvard University. But Dr. Hooley is still leery of her patients broaching such conversations with their bosses.

“There’s more stigma out there than we would like to think,” she says. “Less is more.”

Talk of emotional health was already seeping into the office before the novel coronavirus sent many workers home. Requests for accommodations linked to mental illness were up, according to employment lawyers. Companies built departments devoted to improving workers’ well-being, offering meditation, on-site therapy and resiliency training. And young people entering the workforce from schools where they chatted about anti-anxiety medicine or received extra test-taking time for attention-deficit disorder often weren’t afraid to speak up.

At Puget Sound Energy, a gas and electric provider in Bellevue, Wash., employees have opened up about their internal struggles recently, requesting accommodations ranging from lamps that ease seasonal affective disorder to weeks off.

In past years, “employees would disappear on leave and no one would know why,” says Jenny Haykin, who runs the 3,100-person company’s leave and accommodations programs. “Now they’re being real transparent about why they’re going out and what they need when they come back.”

Ms. Haykin considers it a good thing: if people recognize they need help sooner and ask for it, they can avoid spiraling into a full-blown crisis and keep their lives and careers on track.

Holly Mulić, a 31-year-old who coordinates safety training at the energy company, was open with her boss about struggling to adjust to life back at work after having her son in 2017. Still, it took her more than a year to ask for time to see a therapist while her postpartum anxiety and depression lingered.

“I was trying to handle it on my own for so long because I was so nervous about, I don’t know, freaking people out,” she says.

After a teary conversation with her manager last year, she began attending counseling weekly, taking antidepressants and even spoke about her experience on a company video. When the pandemic sparked a recurrence of anxiety—she worried about her mother, working as a nurse during the initial surge, and her family’s finances after her husband’s hours were cut—she didn’t hesitate to flag the troubles to her boss. On the days when she would find herself crying or unable to focus after a night of insomnia, he assured her it was fine to work flexible hours or take time off.

“It means the absolute world to feel understood without having to feel ashamed or embarrassed or even needing to over-explain myself,” Ms. Mulić says.

It can be hard to find the right moment to disclose a problem or ask for an accommodation. Wait too long and often a worker’s mental health has deteriorated so sharply he or she is having performance problems, Ms. Haykin says. Share too early—say, during a job interview—and you could unnecessarily risk discrimination, says Sharona Hoffman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law. “You should only tell if you really need to tell,” she says. “Don’t volunteer information they don’t need. Do ask for help you absolutely need.”

Jacki Ochoa, a 33-year-old public relations worker in Oakland, Calif., wrote about her borderline personality disorder in a 2018 employee survey designed to gauge worker happiness.

“I was taking a risk,” Ms. Ochoa acknowledges. But she was in deep emotional pain, struggling with suicidal thoughts at the office. She would slip away to the fire escape to take deep breaths and try to calm down. “I knew something needed to change.”

The survey got the attention of leaders at her company, the public -relations firm Mission North. They gave Ms. Ochoa permission to tweak her hours and work remotely twice a week while in an intensive therapy program. When the program ended, Ms. Ochoa asked to work remotely three days a week, sharing few personal details beyond that the office was triggering for her.

“I was grateful that they didn’t push me,” she says.

Kelly Greenwood, the founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit focused on mental health at work, urges companies to establish policies that allow everyone to log on late a few days a week or spend Fridays at home. That way, struggling employees can often get the help they need without having to come forward with individual accommodation requests.

Ms. Greenwood remembers being too fearful in a previous job to request time off to continue seeing her therapist. The lapse led to her anxiety spiking, her performance suffering and eventually a three-month leave from work to focus on her mental health. She wishes she had thought of a way to communicate what she needed early on without flagging her history of anxiety and depression.

“I was really terrified about professional repercussions, especially being a new hire, so I just didn’t say anything,” she says. “In an ideal world, it would be safe to disclose across the board.”

Reaching Out

How to say you are struggling at work—and seek help:

Consider the company culture: Do people talk about mental health? Does the company offer resources, like an employee assistance program with free counseling sessions? That might indicate it is safe to speak up, says Mind Share Partners CEO Kelly Greenwood.

Consider your manager: Has she talked about her own mental health or been vulnerable about other aspects of her life and shared parts that aren’t “picture perfect?” That could be a sign of empathy, Ms. Greenwood says. If not, it might be best to start with a human-resources contact.

When in doubt, keep it vague—but don’t lie: Harvard psychologist Jill Hooley recommends her patients tell their boss they are dealing with a medical issue if they need time off to address a mental-health problem.

Be clear about your wishes: Come prepared with a solution, like starting work late on Fridays so you can fit in a tele-health therapy session in the morning. Make sure the accommodation doesn’t impede your ability to do the job.


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