Over the past few years, we’ve gotten much better as a culture at recognizing burnout at work. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve made the changes necessary to address the root causes of burnout, even simply being able to identify when we’ve reached that point (or are about to) has been a step in the right direction. Many of the strategies surrounding how to deal with burnout—including the ones from us—center on the importance of taking mental health days when you need them.
And while you absolutely should continue to do that, it’s time that we take it back even further, and look at what managing your mental health at work can look like on a long-term basis. In other words, rather than waiting until your breaking point to talk to your boss about stress and burnout, it can be more useful to make it more of an ongoing conversation. Here’s how to do that in a way that’s productive for both you and your employer.
Why make mental health an ongoing conversation with your employer?
Burnout is about more than feeling overworked, and can involve a variety of stressors, including those that aren’t directly related to your job. Right now, for instance, in addition to completing your usual workload and taking care of other personal responsibilities like parenting or caregiving, it’s an incredibly stressful time to be a human. Between the global pandemic, the upcoming elections, continuing to deal with centuries of systemic racism, financial insecurity, and in some places, literal fires, we’re attempting—and in many cases, expected—to continue to produce work as if it were 2019.
But as Dr. Dion Metzger, a psychiatrist practicing in Atlanta, Georgia, points out, waiting to address our mental health at work until we’ve hit a breaking point is itself a problem. “We are asking for time off after the burnout hits,” she tells Lifehacker. “Mental health days are truly meant to prevent burnout.”
Julie Jensen, owner of Moxie HR Strategies and a 20-year HR veteran, agrees, noting that it can be difficult for people to express fatigue or looming burnout because they don’t want to appear weak or unable to manage the competing priorities and responsibilities of their work and personal lives. “One thing I’ve learned over the years—and certainly have seen from all that has been the craziness of 2020—is where individual breaking points are,” she tells Lifehacker. “And they differ significantly from one person to the next.”
Once someone realizes they are not coping well and/or struggling with work, the sooner they should have a conversation with their direct manager or HR, Jensen advises. “Yes, it’s uncomfortable,” she says, “but the consequences of doing nothing means struggling longer or harder than necessary, and at its worst, it could negatively affect decisions about your continued employment.”
Set routine mental health check-ins with your boss
So what, exactly, would regular mental health check-ins with your boss look like? When speaking to your boss, Metzger recommends being straightforward; remember that mental health days are a necessity, not a luxury. “It is OK to say that you feel like your tank is getting close to ‘E,’” she says. “The goal is to refuel before you run out of gas—AKA, burn out. It actually takes much longer to recover from burnout then simply to refuel. It is in the companies’ best interest to let employees have these preventative mental health days as it helps morale and improves productivity in the long run.” Here are a few strategies for establishing ongoing communication with your boss regarding your mental health.
Ask to schedule regular conversations
Dr. Jenny Yip, a clinical psychologist practicing in Los Angeles, recommends having periodic check-ins with your boss, whether they’re monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly. If your boss doesn’t suggest doing this on their own, Yip says you can always ask if it might be a possibility moving forward. “These check-ins are times where you can discuss your workload, the resources that you have, and any stressors affecting you and your job,” Yip tells Lifehacker, adding that they’re especially important now with the pandemic, particularly for many parents who have to balance working from home with caring for children.
Frame it as a way you can be a more effective employee
According to Yip, certain stressors in your life can affect your ability to do your job, and it is important to keep your boss aware of those challenges. “It is key to frame the conversation in a way that gives your boss an opportunity to provide you with feedback on what are some things that are working and some things that aren’t working, so you can collaborate and improve moving forward,” she explains.
“Approach the conversation by thinking about how you can best fulfill your job and perform at your best given what is currently occurring in our world,” Yip advises. “This also outlines what’s realistic, because we all have a bunch of ideals, so it is important to determine how realistic it is to achieve a goal or objective within a certain timeline.”
Come with potential solutions
Similarly, Jensen encourages employees to be honest, positive and solutions-oriented in their perspective when talking to their boss. What would that look like? According to Jensen, it could be something like this: “I’m really struggling with working from home while balancing my kids schooling needs. Recent increases in my workload and the company’s limited resources is compounding my fatigue and stress. I’m concerned with the impacts this is—or may be—having on my performance, in addition to how this is affecting my overall health and wellbeing. Can we talk about possible solutions so that I can be positioned for success?” In other words, you’re not simply presenting a laundry list of complaints: you’re also bringing up possible solutions.
How much should you disclose to your boss regarding your mental health?
Here’s where things can get tricky. How do you know how much you should tell your boss about your mental health, without oversharing or disclosing too much personal information? Here’s what the mental health and HR professionals suggest.
Keep it surface-level
According to Metzger, it’s a good idea to keep these conversations at surface level, and just let your boss know that you’re struggling. “They do not need to know the details of your stressors or the specific symptoms you are experiencing to be receptive to your needs,” she explains. “Be straightforward about needing a decrease in workload or a day off for maintenance of your mental health. No further details necessary.”
Focus on how your mental health is impacting your work, specifically
As an HR professional with more than 20 years of experience, Laura Handrick says that she’s been most impressed by people who are upfront about their mental health and matter-of-factly explain where they could use support. But it’s also important to be aware of what’s appropriate to discuss at work, and what might cross the line.
“Being honest about your mental health issues is telling the basics about your condition and how it affects you at work,” says Handrick, who is also a contributing writer for Choosing Therapy. “Oversharing goes into detail about how it affects non-work items, such as your sex life, that no one at work wants to know about.”
Think about your goal and why you’re having this conversation
When trying to determine exactly how much to disclose to a boss or HR, Yip says that it’s important to keep your goal in mind during the conversation. “Whatever it is that you’re sharing, know the intention you have behind sharing that specific information,” she explains. “Before sharing, ask yourself: ‘Does it involve work, or am I venting?’ You don’t need to tell your employer every detail of your personal life, but it is OK to say ‘such-and-such is adding stress in my life right now.’”
Remember that what you share is up to you
As Jensen points out, it’s up to each employee to determine how much health information they share with their employer. “They have protected privacy rights about health issues, and for this reason, I usually recommend employees moderate how much they share, and I always tell managers not to pry for too much personal information,” she explains.
For example, if you need to take personal leave, cut back your hours, go on short-term disability, or have a mental health or medical condition that is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Jensen says that these issues should be taken up in full confidence with human resources. “A high-performing HR department serves as an advocate for the employee, and also the intermediary with the employee’s manager to balance business needs with employee needs, personal privacy and legal rights,” she notes.
What about racism as a stressor?
Not all managers are aware of the impact that stressors like systemic racism, or the collective trauma many people of color routinely experience can have on their employees—that is, on top of the usual work stress stemming from productivity during a pandemic and a particularly disturbing election season. One the one hand, Metzger points out that “employers have become more aware of the mental burdens in communities of color within the past year.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s something they have addressed.
If there is a racial issue within your workplace, Metzger advises employees to address it immediately. “The first step in change is awareness,” she explains. “People can’t change what they don’t know they’re doing, especially when it comes to microaggressions.”
But if the stressor is not in the workplace, Metzger recommends taking the same approach as you would requesting a mental health day, and only giving details based on your level of comfort. “In today’s climate, employers are aware of the trauma and injustice that people of color have endured just this year alone,” she says. “Similar to symptoms and other stressors, it’s not necessary to tell your employer what is draining your tank, but simply that you need to stop and refuel.”
Should employees be concerned about any repercussions from disclosing mental health issues to their boss?
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to be concerned about repercussions of discussing mental health issues with our boss or their HR representative. But in reality, it is something to consider. “Unfortunately, there are far too many company cultures and leaders who lack empathy or basic care and concern for individuals,” Jensen says.
According to Handrick, a company’s response can depend on its size. “Larger firms are subject to anti-discrimination law enforcement, but the smallest of firms—think mom and pop—have no one looking over their shoulder to ensure they’re treating their mentally ill workers fairly according to the American’s with Disabilities Act,” Handrick explains. As a result, in a larger firm, she says that you’re “pretty safe” disclosing your mental health issues with HR and your manager after you’ve been hired, while asking for reasonable accommodations to ensure you can do your job.
But Handrick says that in a small firm, you may be more at risk disclosing such concerns, as the ADA isn’t enforced for companies with fewer than 15 employees. “If you share with your employer that you need two hours a week of time off to take your kid to therapy, they may deny that, calling it a business hardship,” she explains. “If you mention that you’re afraid to close up the office alone due to your anxiety, they may terminate you if closing up is part of your job requirement.”
Ultimately, if someone works in one of these toxic cultures, Jensen says that they do need to be aware of potential consequences. But on the other hand, they should also be familiar with state and federal employment laws that have been established to protect individuals from discrimination, retaliation and other negative and illegal consequences that might occur. Of course, this is not to say that you shouldn’t bring up mental health issues with your employer—it’s more of a case of being aware of the full range of potential outcomes.
How can we deal with our mental health on an ongoing basis?
Even though we’ve been told, and even encouraged, to take care of our own mental health, that itself can pose a challenge to people if they’re not sure where to start. “Some individuals may be experiencing symptoms of work burnout—compounded by increased stress due to COVID, the election and other societal events—but don’t know what to do about it,” Dr. Adam L. Fried, a clinical psychologist practicing in Phoenix and assistant professor of psychology at Midwestern University tells Lifehacker. “One thing I have seen is a reluctance by individuals who are experiencing burnout to take time off to take care of their mental health, because they believe that the stressors will still be there when they return and that taking a day or two off won’t help.”
Again, the key here is dealing with your mental health on an ongoing basis, and not waiting until things get really bad before bringing it up at work, or even acknowledging it yourself. For example, Fried advises his clients to dedicate time to try to focus their energy and attention on an enjoyable activity—something he says can often be helpful in reducing stress and helping with concentration.
But for those who may not be in the mental space to be able to come up with a strategy or activity that could benefit their mental health, it can be challenging, or even overwhelming, to come up with any sort of plan. If you fall into this category, Fried suggests figuring out what you’d do on your perfect or ideal day—from the time you wake up to when you go to bed. The catch is to only include activities you find relaxing and enjoyable. So, for example, if you’d love to have a day to catch up on errands, that’s fine and completely understandable, but the purpose here is to find something that will actively decrease your stress levels (that is also realistic to do during a global pandemic).
If the anticipatory stress of what would happen if you took time off from work is getting in the way of actually taking that step, Fried suggests reframing your approach and expectations. “I acknowledge [clients’] concern that taking time off won’t necessarily eliminate their stressors, but emphasize that taking time to do relaxing activities can sometimes give them the energy and concentration to help to better cope with them. “