In preparation for an upcoming workshop I was delivering to the organization’s employees, I was meeting with the head of employee wellness of a Fortune 50 company.
“We do it all. We provide no-cost resources for therapy. We give people the time to do it. We make it convenient through onsite support and telehealth.”
It was impressive, actually, the resources that this company had put into mental wellness. And yet he, like hundreds of others responsible for employee health at various organizations, wasn’t sure that employees were actually taking advantage of what was available to them.
He had the hunch that folks imagined that they needed to be in significant crisis – experiencing a mental health “breakdown” or undergoing a major life catastrophe – to feel that they could or should connect with a professional. Perhaps stigma – external and internal – was getting in the way of people accessing the support they needed. Maybe they didn’t know what to expect in therapy.
When the workshop actually came, what we discovered was that many employees were in fact seeking therapy. But no one might know that because it was kept so close to their chests and done outside the bounds of work.
It made me wonder, though, about all of the times that this wasn’t an option – when taking time away from home responsibilities just couldn’t be done or there were appointments available only during weekday hours.
If we’re not talking about going to therapy, then how to people who can’t make it work outside of work, well, make it work?
Pulling mental health out of the shadows
It might be tempting to commend people for not interrupting their day jobs for their mental health needs, but I would raise a few concerns here.
First, having the ability to seek therapy in a way that doesn’t impact work or home is often a sign of privilege, a reality that is just not feasible for the majority of people with mental health needs (and I’d suggest we all have mental health needs). We have families to feed and multiple jobs to hold and aging parents to tend and churches to support and all kinds of other responsibilities.
Second, when we bend over backwards to keep secret our mental health needs, we end up reinforcing the stigma that has plagued mental health for so long. We don’t see each other struggling or seeking help, and so we assume we are the only one on the planet with these particular “issues.” And that leads to feelings of weakness and shame.
So, what if we do need to discuss flexing our schedule to accommodate a weekly therapy appointment or to take time off to participate in an intensive therapy program? What does it look like to make our mental health needs known in the workplace?
Asking for accommodations for therapy
1. Consider your workplace culture.
Take time to evaluate the culture in which you work. Look at whether there have been initiatives around mental wellness or self-care, if people talk about emotional intelligence, or if higher level team members talk about mental health in a supportive way. It’s important to know your situation and how you can navigate it most effectively.
I would never suggest someone make blind demands of their manager – that would be just plain foolish. Know the culture and your particular manager so that you can anticipate what issues may be raised and how to respond.
2. Consider what level of disclosure you want to offer.
Many of us are inclined to keep our mental health needs private, but this isn’t universally the right strategy. Certainly, if you feel this information will be used against you or a basis of discrimination, you have every right to maintain your own privacy.
However, it’s important to consider if your secrecy is a function of shame or strategy.
In many cases, I’ve found that managers are hungry for information that will help them know and support their employees better.
In fact, knowing that you are struggling with anxiety, for example, can put some of the challenges you’ve had recently in context in a way that could help your manager understand that it’s not a lack of effort at play, but an issue that you are addressing.
3. Consider what your real needs are.
Before you assume that what you need would be impossible and dismiss it, get your ideas down on paper. Don’t let your preconceived notions of what’s “appropriate” stop you from acknowledging what would benefit you most.
For example, if you need to see a specialist weekly that only has a lunchtime appointment for you, don’t discount that this is possible. If you need to take four weeks of FMLA to participate in an intensive eating disorder program, don’t just power through because it’s a “bad” time of year for that in your department.
4. Start the conversation.
Having a more open relationship with your manager obviously can make this much easier. But even if you don’t, keep in mind that your manager’s job is to make sure that you are supported in being able to do your job. If you aren’t mentally or emotionally able to give your all, it is part of their job to support efforts to address that.
Share with your manager or your HR representative as much as you’ve decided to disclose about what has been going on in your life. I generally suggest keeping this targeted and avoiding rambling or sharing information that feels too vulnerable at the time.
For example, you might say, “I know I haven’t shared this before, but I have struggled on and off with depression since I was teen. I do many things to keep myself mentally strong, but there are times that I experience more symptoms. I’ve noticed that I have been experiencing more of those lately and I want to make sure it doesn’t impact my performance here. I’ve found a specialist in my condition who has recommended weekly appointments. I’d like to discuss flexing my hours to accommodate these appointments for the next three to four months.”
5. Know your rights and what you deserve.
It’s an unfortunate reality that all organizations won’t respond supportively. Some may be dismissive, agitated, or disrespectful. Some may give vague or passive aggressive feedback about how your absence is bad for the team or wouldn’t seem fair.
Remember that some mental conditions are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and that discrimation based on this information is not only wrong, but illegal.
Keep in mind also that if your organization is subject to the rules of the Family Medical Leave Act, rejecting your request for time off for your mental health may not be an option on their part, so don’t let it be.
Ultimately, how your organization responds is important data for you. It can speak to the sophistication of policies and the respect for employees as individuals.
At the end of the day, if you find yourself in a situation that is not supportive of your mental wellness and your efforts are not getting you anywhere, carefully consider if you want and can stay in your role or if there are any other avenues of support you might access.