As we approach, with starts and stops, the light at the end of the COVID tunnel, it’s fun to imagine the open borders, the (partial) return to the office and never having to check whether you have a mask on you. Unfortunately, none of the coronavirus vaccines address our mental health.
It’s been a ringer of a year, and there’s so much that so many people have to grieve. 2020 was a worldwide trauma that still hasn’t ended, and you’re not alone if your mental health has suffered.
That doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to broach mental health in the workplace, though, or to understand how to hold a job and yourself together at the same time. But if you’re worried that you’re falling behind in your workplace, you’re not alone! COVID has affected everyone, and reaching out can be a great first step towards that post-pandemic future.
Understand Your Rights
Between 2011’s Work Health and Safety Act and 1991’s Disability Discrimination Act in Australia, the law has you covered. If you’re adding to your anxiety, worrying that your mental health dip is going to get you fired, take a deep breath!
If your mental health is affecting your work and you notify your company, they’re legally obligated to make reasonable adjustments. Whether that’s flexible hours, a shift in workload or any number of situation-specific adjustments, you can sit down with your manager and figure out what will work for both of you.
Of course, you may have paused in that last section – chances are, you probably don’t want to tell anyone at the office, let alone your manager. Unfortunately, the laws that protect you from discrimination only work if you’ve disclosed your situation.
That said, there’s absolutely no right or wrong when it comes to workplace mental health disclosure. Every office and manager is different. It’s okay if you’re unsure what to do – instead of taking the plunge, you can reach out to others first. Whether that’s a friend, a family member or a mental health professional, they can offer you support and guidance. If you choose not to notify your workplace, forming another safety net means that, on days when checking your inbox is too overwhelming, there’s still someone you can talk to.
You may also want to check within your office. Even if it’s not a Manager, there’s an extremely high chance that, COVID or not, someone else has experienced their own struggles. If you’re comfortable doing so, you can reach out for advice and their own insight into dealing with mental health in your workplace. If you’d rather not, there may be assistance programs already set up which you can access, whether that’s help affording therapy or other resources to support employees.
If you do want to notify your work but don’t want to approach your boss on your own, you can speak with HR. While this might not be an option in smaller companies, an HR professional can guide you through the process or provide you with a confidential means for taking leave.
Whether it’s HR or your Manager, however, it’s important to remember that you can disclose as much or as little as you’d like. While providing some detail is necessary for everyone to understand your situation, don’t share more than you’re okay with. If they ask questions, you don’t have to answer.
Before you approach them, try writing down what you’d like to share and what you’d like to ask for. If you can explain how they can help, that’s a great starting point. Of course, you don’t have to know. Your therapist, your friends, HR or your boss may all have suggestions – it’s okay to not have the answers.
And, while this is easier said than done, don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed. Mental health struggles are no different than other illnesses.
Try framing your conversation as a discussion about illness and how it’s affecting your productivity. Again, if you don’t want to share something, you don’t have to. While it might be scary, you can keep this conversation short and to the point: where are you struggling at work and how can they help? You don’t need to share more than that.
Opening up about mental health struggles is scary. It can feel invasive. After the last year, though, we’re all a bit worse for the wear, and there’s the chance that your Manager themselves might be experiencing the same issues. Or your desk mate. Or even everyone on your floor. Opening up the conversation and reaching out is never easy, but it can create positive changes and open dialogues, which, in the time of a pandemic, are more important than ever.