5 Steps for Talking to Your Boss about Mental Health

Almost half of employees now say they are stressed out. But too many shy away from discussing it.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, an increasing number of employees have struggled with depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental-health issues. Forty-four percent of employees reported that they experienced a lot of daily stress during the previous workday, according to a 2022 study. And, in a separate study, 78% of respondents agreed that their workplace stress affects their mental health.

“If you are feeling stressed, take comfort in the fact that a lot of adults experience mental-health challenges,” says Mark Royal, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. It’s very likely that others in your organization are facing similar issues.

Yet most employees are reluctant to talk with their managers about their mental health, because they don’t want it to affect how their manager and colleagues view them or their work. “We get in the mentality of being a workplace martyr, and we prioritize our manager and our team over what we need to be healthy,” says Korn Ferry Advance coach Joshua Daniel.

If you are struggling with mental health issues or a family crisis and want to discuss it with your boss, here are five steps to take to make that conversation easier.

Start with Human Resources.

HR can provide information about the resources available to you and the ways the organization has helped colleagues in the past, Royal says. “It’s good to have an understanding of what flexibility your organization can provide so you’re better informed when you talk with your manager—who might not know what the organization has done in the past,” he says.

For instance, if you need time off to care for a loved one, you might be eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, says Korn Ferry Advance coach Valerie Olson. Keep in mind that it is illegal to fire an employee for having a psychiatric disability or an addiction, and that employers are required to accommodate employees with an addiction, Olson says.

Prepare to speak with your manager.

Before talking with your manager, take time to prepare for a productive conversation. First, consider whether you’re dealing with a time-bound event, such as a death in the family or an illness, or if you’re dealing with an ongoing condition—such as depression or an addiction—that will cause you to approach work differently, Royal says.

It’s also a good idea to think about what accommodations would be helpful to your situation before you talk with your manager. If you’re not sure what to ask for, the Job Accommodation Network provides free guidance on workplace accommodations, Olson says. Possibilities include a lighter workload, dedicated time off, more flexible hours, or a quiet place to work.

Meet with your manager.

When you ask for a meeting, make it clear that this is about something important and personal, and that you need your manager’s undivided attention, says Korn Ferry Advance coach Rasha Accad.

Discuss the challenges you’re having and what you think will be helpful, Royal says. To start the conversation, you might say, “I want to share something with you that affects me personally and tell you what I need to stay healthy.” Mention to your manager that you’ve asked HR what resources are available, such as an EAP, and what accommodations are possible, he says.

Don’t feel like you have to explain every detail of your situation. “It’s fully up to you to share as much or as little as you prefer about factors in your life,” says Daniel, who recently spoke with his manager about taking three weeks off to deal with a personal matter. Don’t try to soften your issues or your request but instead ask for exactly what you need, he says

Be prepared to continue the discussion.

If this is the first time your manager is hearing about your problem, they might need some time to think about your request. “Most likely this won’t be the only conversation you have with your manager, but it will open up a series of conversations,” Royal says.

Keep in mind that your manager can’t approve any accommodations without first checking with HR. Consider scheduling a follow-up meeting to discuss next steps, Accad says.

Disconnect and return stronger.

If your approved accommodation is time away from the office, you might need to set expectations about how engaged you’ll be while you’re gone, Daniels says. For instance, will you be checking email? Will you be available to answer questions? You’ll also need to plan how you’ll spend the time away from work to ensure you come back feeling refreshed, Daniels says. Your office EAP might be helpful in guiding this planning.

When you return to work, talk with your manager about how much you can take on during your first week or two back in the office. “Give yourself that grace to not expect to be 100 percent on the day of your return,” Daniels says.