Would you be comfortable talking to your employer or co-workers about your need for time off work to address a physical health issue? Perhaps. But how comfortable would you be if the time you need is due to a mental health condition?
When it comes to mental illness, maintaining privacy in the professional sphere is not always possible, wrote Barbara Ricci, a senior advisor in behavioral health at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy in an article this week for Harvard Business Review. A board member at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Ricci recalled that over the last three decades she has “been approached by hundreds of colleagues and clients . . . seeking advice . . . on how best to manage professional life while dealing with a mental health condition”.
Ricci said her advice begins with the need to recognize the commonality of the situation. “Just because you don’t know of anyone else at your company who has taken time off for mental health reasons doesn’t mean there isn’t precedent,” she wrote.
Quoting statistics available on NAMI’s website, Ricci explained that mental health challenges are likely to affect 20 percent of Americans each year. Unfortunately, while treatments of diagnosable mental health issues have an 80 percent success rate, “fewer than half of the people who need help get it, often because of social stigma, the fear of repercussions at work, or lack of access to quality, affordable care,” she said.
Although Ricci recognizes that “workplace culture” may not be the cause of someone’s illness, elements of a work atmosphere “can make an [existing] illness difficult to manage”. Work that calls on employees to put in long hours “in sedentary conditions”, to lose sleep and personal time for physical exercise, friends and family, can result in “substance misuse and deteriorating mental health,” she explained, “which can make it hard to keep up at work.”
In a perfect world, suggested Ricci, an employee who needs to take a leave of absence should be easily able to inform their employer or human resources—a process that should require “sharing only a minimal amount of information and keeping your diagnosis private”.
In the case of “a longer-term disability leave, . . . your doctor will likely need to provide documentation to your firm’s disability insurance provider,” Ricci wrote. “The disability provider acts as an intermediary between you and your employer and does not share your diagnosis with your employer.”
While it may seem daunting to ask for and negotiate time away from work for a mental health issue, Ricci thinks the real challenge lies in the “big question . . . how to return to work.” The path to return is also filled with smaller questions: “What do you tell coworkers? Your boss? How do you get back into the swing of things without compromising your health?”
In a 2017 article for CNN, writer Rose Schmidt quoted findings from a 2016 American Psychological Association survey that found “less than half of working Americans say the climate in their workplace supports employee well-being”.
With statistics like these, Ricci advised looking at the positives and negatives about disclosing one’s diagnosis. “In my experience, there are typically two types of people who will disclose, despite the fear of prejudice or discrimination at work,” she wrote. “The first group is those who want to bring their whole selves to work and don’t want to hide. The second group includes leaders . . . who understand that openly acknowledging their diagnosis can shed a positive light on what it means to work with someone with a mental, or invisible, disability.”
Which path one takes is a personal choice, but Ricci recommended being prepared for questions from co-workers about the absence. “A brief and consistent narrative will help you stay focused on readjusting to work,” she explained. Something like: “I took time off for health [or personal] reasons, but things are fine now and I’m happy to be back to work.”
Ricci emphasized other important considerations to make as one settles back into work. They included:
- Consider whether to initially return to full-time or part-time. Consider the potential for exhaustion and the effects of any new medications that could cause drowsiness, physical responses or mood changes at work.
- “Develop a personal mantra” of positive thoughts and self-talk. Use such phrases as: “Be compassionate to myself.” “I’m on a learning curve.” “Take it a few hours at a time.”
- Have a support team to rely on—a trusted co-worker, a close friend or family member, or a therapist. These people can help with transitioning back to work, provide feedback and reduce stress.
- Establish a routine that includes brief breaks during the day—even moments to meditate. At day’s end, take time to make a short list of priorities to accomplish the next day. Later at night, think back on the day and try to pick out the positive things that took place.
- Prevent setbacks by becoming your own best monitor and learn to recognize your warning signals: “Are you stressed, anxious, or getting into conflicts at work? Keep in mind that there is a difference between a bad day and relapsing.”
In her 2014 article for PsychCentral.com, writer Christine Stapleton described her own experience returning to work after eight weeks away to care for depression. “Anxiety plagues us as we recover and return to work,” she wrote. “A wise boss will embrace these facts and realize that an employee who is both physically and mentally healthy is a better, more productive worker.”
Ricci agreed. “If you want to have a conversation with your boss or colleagues about your health, do it on your terms,” she advised. “You might make yourself more vulnerable with those you trust, but being able to share your diagnosis can help to dispel myths and reduce stigma. Talking about mental health, just as one would talk about physical health, sends a powerful message that it’s OK to get help.”
Ricci, B., (March 27, 2018). Harvard Business Review. When You Need to Take Time Off Work for Mental Health Reasons. https://hbr.org/2018/03/when-you-need-to-take-time-off-work-for-mental-health-reasons
Schmidt, R., (July 13, 2017). CNN.com. When a woman took sick days for mental health, her email sparked a larger discussion. https://www.cnn.com/2017/07/12/health/mental-health-response-from-company-ceo-trnd/index.html
Stapleton C., (June 2014). PsychCentral.com. Depression: How do you tell your boss you can’t work? https://blogs.psychcentral.com/depression/2014/06/depression-how-do-you-tell-your-boss-you-cant-work/