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Here’s one way to talk to your boss about mental health

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Nenad Cavoski
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Some employers offer an Employee Assistance Program. These programs can help workers get short-term counseling and other mental health help.

In the throes of the pandemic, businesses started to pay more attention to employee wellness. But with COVID in our rearview mirror — and people back in the office — employers aren’t giving things like mental health the same consideration anymore.

“During the pandemic, we had a shared stressor, so all of us were going through something similar that was causing a lot of stress and anxiety for all employees,” said Taeya Howell, a professor of organizational behavior and human resources at Brigham Young University. “It was easier to empathize with one another because we had some shared understanding. But now that we're on the other side of the pandemic, there's less recognition of some of the challenges that people are facing.”

Howell pointed to a recently leaked Salesforce memo as an example of shifting priorities in businesses. According to Fortune Magazine, the memo said, “Wellness culture overpowered high-performance culture during [the] pandemic.”

So post-pandemic, employees need to advocate for themselves at work if they are struggling with their mental health, she said. Part of Howell’s research focuses on employee voice – how employees can speak up for themselves in the workplace and be heard. She said the first step when talking to a manager is to go with a solution in mind.

“Employees can go to their managers and say, ‘Hey, I'm struggling with certain things either at home or at work and here are some things that might help me be more productive.’”

Howell added that the last part is important. To be more effective when talking to an employer, workers need to say how their solution could help the company.

“[It’s] beneficial for both employees and employers if employees are healthy and productive.”

Thinking ahead and being proactive can also help. Howell offered an example of an employee whose son had died. The employee knew the anniversary of that death would be particularly difficult.

“It was really helpful for him to have an upfront conversation with his manager and [say], ‘... I will need to take this day off and mourn him and recuperate from this experience, and then I can come back and be more productive.’ Thankfully, he had a manager that was really supportive and understanding of the situation.”

Some employers offer an Employee Assistance Program. These programs can help workers get short-term counseling and other mental health help. Howell said people who are struggling can benefit from professional help in making a case to their employer.

“Having a diagnosis … can help protect and give [employees] a little bit more rights when it comes to seeking time off and different accommodations for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety,” Howell said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ciara Hulet: What are the strategies an employee can turn to when they’re struggling with their mental health in the workplace?

Taeya Howell: I think one of the important things is to seek out someone who can advocate on your behalf. Some of my research looks at voice advocates, people that are going to speak up on behalf of someone else. It can be a really effective way of bringing about change because managers respond better to advocates. If you have a trusted colleague at work who you feel comfortable sharing [with] some of the situation that you're facing and that you can trust to represent you to your manager and help not only you come up with solutions, but help your manager see possible solutions that could benefit both you and the organization, that can be really effective. The advocate can probably see things in a different light. The other benefit of having an advocate is it suggests to the manager there are multiple people that are concerned about you and your situation that you're in. It can spur the manager to want to take action on that.

CH: Are there certain workers who are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems in the workplace?

TH: People that are pushed to their limits in a variety of different ways don't have a chance to recuperate and are often in less visible kinds of roles. Some of my research has looked at corrections officers who suffer a lot with mental illness because of the hard things that they see at work. They feel very invisible and they don't feel appreciated. Some of my other research has looked at the importance of gratitude, and what we found is that when employees feel seen, when they feel appreciated for what they're doing, they're more likely to engage in healthy recovery behaviors like exercise, reaching out to friends, meditating, praying, those kinds of things.

CH: What about new employees?

TH: We think about new jobs as being this exciting opportunity, but it's also a time when you're generally unsure of what you're supposed to do and what's expected of you. It can create a lot of stress for people and can lead to depression. Some things that new employees can do to buffer themselves [include] reaching out to others, seeking that social support from people in the organization [and] asking questions to try and figure out what the expectations are from a manager's perspective.

CH: Can workers use sick time as a mental health day?

TH: Paid leave is not required in the United States or in Utah. But we do have the Family Medical Leave Act, which does protect employees to be able to take time off. In order to be able to use FMLA leave for mental illness when you do have things like clinical depression or anxiety, things that have been diagnosed and you are seeking treatment for, those are going to be protected. You can take sick days for those kinds of things. [If] you’re feeling blue [or] you're having a lot of stress in your life, [that] time off isn't technically covered under the FMLA. Definitely work with your manager and supervisor to try and address some of those root causes as best you can.

Ciara is a native of Utah and KUER's Morning Edition host
Emily Pohlsander is the Morning Edition Producer and graduated with a journalism degree from Missouri State University. She has worked for newspapers in Missouri and North Carolina.
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