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How to talk to your boss about your mental health

There's always a way to get what you need when it comes to putting your mental health first.

Written by
Joe Cutcliffe
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
August 3, 2023
min read
How to talk to your boss about your mental health
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It’s 2020, so if you don’t have a grasp on the state of your own mental health (hopefully it’s great, but if not then that’s okay too), you’re at least aware that other people might not be having a good day on the reg.

What was once largely misunderstood, and stigmatised, is now much more in the open than it was only a few decades ago. Living with mental health concerns no longer means suffering in silence.

As a whole, society has a much better understanding of how a mental health complaint might affect somebody in the workplace, both in terms of their ability to perform their duties, and how it might affect how they interact with their colleagues. But that doesn't mean everyone knows how to talk about it.

“Recent research shows that although attitudes to mental health have shifted significantly, most Australian employees would still not disclose to their employer,” Michelle Bihari, from Workplace Resilience Australia, tells Co-Pilot.

“Those that feel safe to do so, do so because they work in a mentally healthy workplace, the workplace culture supports open communication about challenges including mental health issues, or they have a trusting relationship with their direct line manager.”

Employers are becoming more sensitive to mental health issues and how they can affect a work environment – but they’re not mind-readers. This means that getting on the same page as your boss will involve a simple and open conversation to help ensure your workplace has the right tools to support you when you need it.

Here are some simple tips for opening a dialogue with your employer so you’re both on the same page when it comes to keeping a healthy head in the workplace.

Am I required to tell me boss about a mental health problem?

There is no law in Australia requiring anybody to tell an employer about any mental health concerns, formal diagnosis or not. If you decide you’d like to tell your boss, the decision is entirely up to you.

The best course of action if you’re unsure of what to do is to talk to your doctor first and see if there’s anything specific your GP recommends. They might suggest asking for more flexible work hours, or the making a change to your workspace for better concentration. These are, of course, surface level things, and probably the easiest to put into practice. Importantly, the solution starts with communication.

Remember, you're not alone

If you’re in an organisation that’s bigger than the cast of "Seinfeld", chances are you’re not the only one living with mental illness, anxiety, or even just unwarranted stress.

In fact, there’s a good chance that if your manager has any moderate level of experience, they will have already helped other employees navigate a path to a happier work environment that’s more in line with your needs.

“Given that one in five Australians will experience a mental illness each year, and almost one in two Australians within our lifetime, we all need to upskill in how we address this at work,” notes Bihari.

Pick your timing

Telling your boss about your mental health is a tad more important than the cricket score, and needs more attention and privacy than the customary Monday water cooler chat. Shoot your boss a brief email letting them that you need 10 to 15 minutes of their time, and ask them when suits them. A good template would look like this:

“Hi there [Benevolent Employer],

I was hoping to have a chat with you this week about something important of a personal nature - would you be able to let me know of a 10 - 15 minute window that might suit you?

Finest regards,

[Legend employee]”

Don't shy away from privacy

While it might go without saying, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re both on the same page regarding your privacy. The best way to do this is by stating that you want to make sure that the details of your conversation remain private.

Many employers even offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) to provide short term support to their employees.

If you can, get out of the office (or the job site)

Whether you don a white collar on the daily and punch out your work from behind a desk, or sport a blue one and enjoy the early starts and early finishes of a tradie’s life, your workplace isn’t the most ideal place to talk with your boss about mental health.

Head out to a local cafe, or even pub, to find some neutral territory where work won’t get in the way.

This also avoids the risk of having to explain (or rather, lie) to your colleagues why you were having a one-on-one with the boss, if you’d prefer your matter to be kept private.

Be concise and (reasonably) direct

As we said before, your boss is not a mind reader, and is also (probably) not a psychologist, so choosing your language is an important factor in being able to communicate your mental health concerns to any employer.

It might help to grab a pen and paper and write down the points you’d like to get across beforehand. Remember to keep your wording quite clear.

Be considered in your language

Mental health concerns and the workplace might not feel like they mix all that much because one is concerned with how you’re feeling, while the other is a place where you might be inclined to check your feelings at the door on the way in to avoid being seen as “unprofessional” or even “soft”.

This is bullshit.

There are definitely ways to communicate your feelings in a professional environment without coming across as overly emotive or reactive, and knowing that you have the right to privacy and compassion is an empowering thing.

Be prepared to tell your boss how you think they can help

Like any conversation around work, it helps to go in with a plan of what you hope to achieve. This is also something that could help your employer help you, and it's worth taking a little bit of time to flesh it out.

“According to Australian legislation, employers must be responsive to any health issues of their employees,” says Bihari. “Employers must try and make reasonable adjustments, and then review and monitor these.

“Adjustments could include moderating KPI’s, more flexible working hours, or reducing stressful work temporarily. Employers need to be kind, supportive, and obviously not discriminate against the employees.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission provides a helpful guide for managers that can be a very useful reference if you wanted to offer a third-party reference to your employer.

Beyond Blue and Safework Australia also provide resources for managers and employers that address both the legislative responsibility of organisations and also their practical application to conversations surrounding the subject.

My boss is the reason for my mental health problems

Unfortunately, this can be all too common, but it’s still an issue that needs to be resolved.

“Firstly, discuss this with the GP, mental health clinician, HR or your EAP provider” says Bihari.

Tackling the problem of having Satan as your direct report can mean trouble, but it's important to stay strategic with this. There is no one-size-fits-all answer here.

“If the line manager is a psychopath, narcissist, or micro-manger, this is very difficult to deal with and can be detrimental to one’s mental health. If the line manager is someone who is open to feedback from their direct reports, then it may be productive to have this conversation privately and not be critical or attacking.

“For example, it can be more strategic to say 'I notice I am more productive at work when I feel supported and encouraged' than saying something that is more personally attacking of the manager.”

Bihari's top tips for talking to your boss about your mental health

1) Seek advice from your GP or mental health clinician as to any reasonable work adjustments that would be recommended.

2) Clarify and perhaps make some notes about what you do want to discuss (and not discuss).

3) Clarify what you are seeking from your employer and from the conversation.

4) Be clear about confidentiality and privacy – do you only want this information to be known by the person you are discussing it with, or are their others you work closely with that you think should know? An employee has the right to confidentiality.

Remember, your mental health is as important (and often more important) than your physical prowess. Your brain, and the thoughts rattling through it, can help you keep on top of everything going on in your life.

Talking to people about struggles that might be related to your thoughts and feelings is no different to taking the elevator because you have a broken leg. Of course, if you choose to limp up the stairs, there's only so much other people can do for you.


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