Pass It On: Tell Your Manager About A Mental Health Issue Before It Starts Affecting Your Work
“The thing to absolutely not do is to wait until it’s too late or until the situation spirals out of control.”
In Pass It On, two seasoned entrepreneurs help women navigate modern-day career conundrums. In this installment, we ask — when is the appropriate time to tell your employer about a mental health issue?
Talking about your mental health in the workplace seems like a minefield to navigate, considering potential negative repercussions for the employee, manager, and the workplace. Here, we sit down with The Swaddle’s founder Karla Bookman, and investor/strategist Rupa Pandit, to figure out how to talk about a mental health issue with your manager without jeopardizing your career or risking insensitivity.
Aditi: It seems like earlier attitudes about workplace conduct dictated that mental health issues should be handled with a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. Has that been beneficial at all?
Rupa: I think the challenge for both an employee or employer to incorporate a human element into a team has always been both a blessing and a challenge. How do you bring in more personality and diversity in opinions, while making room for people to have their own personal issues be accommodated while also getting work done? Definitely, a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ or any other policy that’s an absolute black or white situation is always going to create issues, so it’s a good thing we’ve moved away from that. But, moving away has now created new challenges.
Karla: I don’t know actually if we’ve fully moved away from the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality. In different industries, work cultures still remain quite different and there’s probably some workplaces where it’s more acceptable to be open about these issues, and I would imagine some industries still find it unacceptable. But I agree with you, Rupa, that this idea that you can completely negate people’s humanity and the impact of all the other social and emotional factors going on in a person’s life, like it doesn’t factor into their ability to work — that is obviously a fiction.
Aditi: How would you differentiate between what feels like a bad few days versus what feels like a legitimate issue that should be raised with your manager?
Rupa: There’s a range between something that’s a disability versus something that’s a bit of a struggle at work. The latter involves occasional flare-ups that make it hard to perform. Of course, a manager should be involved in giving guidance for both. But, it helps to identify specifically what is bothering you and having a conversation specifically about that.
Karla: There’s the other type of thing which is ubiquitous: the slump, which is the low energy, not-really-feeling-it type of mood. It’s just a time where you’re not feeling inspired. That shouldn’t be conflated with a mental health issue that needs to be discussed with a manager. Bringing each temporary slump to a manager could be highly disruptive to a person’s career and the entire team. Those are just part of a cyclical mood everyone has and it’s important to learn to work through those; they’re distinct from a mental health issue that may require time off or an adjustment in workload or timings.
Aditi: What would be the most ideal time to disclose a mental health issue to an employer? Should it be during hiring, or much later?
Karla: I would say that it should only be raised when you believe it could be an issue in the performance of whatever duties are required at the job. During the hiring process, it would only make sense if there was some way in which the applicant believed that the workspace needed to be adapted for their needs or the employee’s future role may need tweaking. Otherwise, once somebody is hired — just before it becomes an issue would be a really good time to broach it. I don’t think people need to be open about a mental health issue if it doesn’t affect their abilities or their team. But I do think people have a responsibility to give a heads up to their manager if they believe their mental health may start impacting their work.
Aditi: From an employer’s perspective, what’s the best way to react when an employee reveals their mental health issues?
Rupa: I think the reaction will depend on the timing, i.e., when and how this comes out. As long as it occurs in preparatory mode, the manager can offer support and try to ensure that they accomodate the employee. It’s a challenge when it doesn’t come up from someone who is seen as capable of managing themselves, or when mismanagement happens and the employee and the colleagues are affected by it. But generally, most managers I’ve seen are really supportive with respect to adjusting the work scope in order to deal with whatever the employee has going on personally.
Aditi: Is there something that an employee or an employer should absolutely not do in this situation?
Karla: From the employee perspective, the thing to absolutely not do is to wait until it’s too late or until the situation spirals out of control. I think a manager’s best opportunity to be supportive only comes up before such a thing happens — it’s much much harder to do when it’s impacting both the employee and other people on the team.
Rupa: What a manager can do in this situation is to not compel employees to share things that they can manage personally and don’t affect their job. Plus, if you’re not being open or receptive to details of people’s personal life that they believe will impact workload, or giving advice to employees that falls outside the ambit of their workload — those are the things a manager shouldn’t do.
Aditi: Is there any way in which the employee can ensure confidentiality about their mental health?
Rupa: A lot of this depends on what accomodations would be necessary to accomodate an illness or disability. Plus, workplace relationships also include a certain professional relationship and then some camaraderie. So if someone comes at an employer from the camaraderie perspective, you could sit down and have a conversation about confidentiality beforehand. It doesn’t have to be a binary — you don’t need to brace yourself for free dissemination after you reveal this information.
Karla: Unfortunately it also depends company by company, because this is also a culture issue. It depends how strict HR rules are in any particular organization — I’ve worked in both the U.S. and India, and I’ve seen how confidentiality about health issues is treated differently. In my U.S. workplaces, the confidentiality of an HR file was sacrosanct, and in India it’s been a little more fluid, that is, there’s a little more gossip that comes out about personnel. If you’re worried about privacy, it really depends on what the organization is like and what the direct manager is like.
Aditi: If an employee reveals a mental health issue to a manager, and they find out that the manager is treating them differently or negatively because of it — what would be the best step to take?
Rupa: To me, this is the cost of sharing personal details unfortunately. You are including someone else in your decision making and in the evaluation of how well you’re doing your work. This has its advantages, like accomodation, but this is the one disadvantage — you’re including someone who may or may not be sensitive. If you do want a certain level of sensitivity and you’re not getting it, the best bet is to do the work as professionally as possible. The more you can demonstrate that you can hold up your end, or that your struggle was a one time issue, or that you know how to handle your situation, you should overcome this.
Karla: If an employee tells their manager about a mental health issue, presumably they’re doing it because they want a certain allowances at work or because they want to be considered, temporarily, as a special case at work. So I wouldn’t necessarily read being treated differently as insensitive, but more like someone being responsive. The best way for an employee to show their manager that they’ve got it sorted is to bounce back to performing at the usual level, eventually.