Anna Swenson has been in therapy for seven years to help her manage her depression and anxiety. But until taking her most recent job six months ago, she’d never discussed it at work. When she had her weekly appointment, she’d sneak out of the office. She worried that in her previous workplaces, people would resent her for taking the time out from a hectic workday. Some, she worried, may even see the appointment as a value judgment on her skills or her sanity.
Swenson isn’t alone in approaching the “T word” with some trepidation. The conversation is hard for people to navigate, in part because the stigmas around mental health force some into silence. Combined with traditional ideas about “ideal workers,” who need little to no support from their employer and work tirelessly for the company, these stereotypes can make the conversation feel even more intimidating.
Deciding to disclose
When she started her new job, Swenson felt more comfortable discussing her mental health at work, and she knew she wanted to say something. So in her weekly one-on-one with her boss, she decided to be direct about it.
“For me, at least, depression is pretty hard to hide,” Swenson says. “I almost chickened out and was just going to avoid the question, but then she asked me, ‘What’s going on with you? Do you need support on anything?’ It felt like the right time.”
Swenson presented her issue in as straightforward a manner as possible, explaining the weekly appointment she’d set up with her therapist and her plans to organize her responsibilities around that time.
Deciding to talk with a boss about therapy requires some careful mental calculus. A lot depends on your relationship with the supervisor and your trust in their ability to do the right thing — that is, not to hold it against you in future appraisals.
If you’re unsure about how your boss will react or fear retaliation or other harmful effects as a result, Kate Bischoff, owner and founder of Thrive Consulting, suggests talking with a human resources representative first. The HR department can help set up the conversation or even give tips on how to proceed.
Disclosing to a supervisor has some upsides. Often, managers have “lots of things in their tool belt to help,” Bischoff says.
Some companies offer employee assistance programs that can connect workers with mental health professionals. Making resources like this visible to employees can also break down the barriers to seeking help, says Claire Cammarata, deputy director of the New York City Employee Assistance Program.
An employer who initiates the conversation or opens up the topic can be more helpful than many bosses realize, Bischoff says.
Opening up communication
“A big barrier to doing this well is not communicating, so we want to have as much communication as possible,” she says. “Once we start discussing that and putting frameworks around how we have these conversations, that is a good first step to making an environment where the employee feels good talking about what their needs are, and the employer can voice his concerns when they’re necessary.”
Disclosing your own experiences with therapy can be helpful for other people, too, Cammarata says. More discussion ultimately lessens the stigma and opens the conversation for coworkers and managers alike.
“I used to believe that [the focus should be] mostly on education, and educating people about mental health and addressing the myths about various mental health disorders, addressing those misconceptions,” she says. “But now, I think there’s another very important piece — it’s disclosure. The more people express being in therapy and having open communication about that, in the same way we might express having a doctor’s appointment.”