In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked the Girls’ Night In community for your toughest questions on mental health and wellness in the workplace. As society becomes increasingly more aware of and educated on the importance of mental health (not just physical health!), we naturally have more questions about how to advocate for it appropriately within the workplace. Doing so can be very tricky, especially when considering the social stigma surrounding mental health. For example, should you feel comfortable asking for “mental health days,” just as you would sick days? We partnered with managerial expert Alison Green of Ask A Manager for her best advice for both employees and managers on this question and more, below.
How to Set Boundaries With Managers
Q: Do you have any advice for setting boundaries for a manager regarding self-care? For example, if I scheduled a workout class and they ask you to do a last minute project, can you say, “I have an appointment from xx-xx, but I’ll get started as soon as I’m done.” Are there other ways to tell managers no when work is crowding out the other time in your life?
A: It depends on the details! In the majority of cases, it should be fine to say, “I have an appointment from x-x, but I’ll get started on this as soon as I’m done.” You’re an adult, and a good boss will trust you to make responsible decisions about how to manage your time, as long as you’re meeting your work goals and important deadlines aren’t being missed. (Of course, not all bosses are good ones, so you also need to factor in what you know about your boss, as well as how much standing you have to assert yourself if she’s not so reasonable.)
That said, there are times when you’d need to handle this differently. In particular, if the last-minute project is truly urgent and important and can’t wait until your class is over, in most jobs you’d be expected to accommodate that, even if it means you have to cancel your other plans. However, if urgent and important things are constantly coming up at the last minute and causing you to cancel your plans, that’s something you can raise with your boss. In that case, it would be reasonable to say, “Lately it’s been tough for me to keep commitments outside of work because last-minute, high-priority stuff keeps coming up right at the end of the day. Is there a way for us to structure these differently so that I’m not so frequently on-call?” (Of course, you have to know your field. There are some fields where fielding last-minute interruptions is part of the gig, but they’re rare and you probably know if you’re in one of those industries.)
How to Manage Up When You Suffer from Depression, Anxiety, or Other Personal Issues
If you’re going through a difficult personal time that’s affecting your work schedule, what’s the best way to broach the subject with your manager?
Explaining that you’re going through a tough personal time is often really helpful to do because it gives your boss context for anything she might have noticed that seems off in your work. That way, she doesn’t have to wonder if you’re checked out because you’re unhappy with your job, or draw conclusions about your performance that might be the wrong ones.
You don’t need to share all the details about what’s going on, though. It’s generally enough to say something like, “I wanted to let you know that I’m dealing with something difficult in my personal life right now. I’m working through it, and it won’t be a permanent state of affairs – but I wanted to flag it for you in case you notice me seeming off right now.”
If you have a track record of doing good work, you’ll generally have enough good will banked that a reasonable boss will cut you some slack once she hears this. (Within reason, of course – you can’t let your work go to hell during this period and expect that to be okay. You’re just asking for some grace here while you get things under control.)
How to Manage Employees Struggling With Anxiety
Q: I am a manager, and I have been working with a direct report who has been underperforming for some time. Recently, they had a severe anxiety attack, and, following their therapist’s recommendation, we have made accommodations for them to take time off and work remotely. As their condition improves and they hopefully return to a regular work routine, what should I keep in mind, or how can I avoid triggering their anxiety or making their mental health situation worse as we work on their performance issues?
Ask your employee! That might sound obvious, but managers often try to figure this kind of thing out on their own, thinking that they shouldn’t bother the employee with questions about what will help. Sometimes that goes okay, but it can easily lead you to make assumptions and get it wrong. Most employees will appreciate it if you directly ask how you can be most helpful. For example: “I want to make sure you’re getting the support you need from me right now. What would be most helpful to you, as far as how we’re working together? Are there things we could be doing differently or anything specific that would make work easier on you right now?”
After that, though, don’t harp on it. That can actually make it worse, since most people don’t want to feel like their boss is tiptoeing around them. Ask, be honest about what you can and can’t do (that part is important – don’t set the person up to expect something that you can’t realistically offer), and then treat the person as normally as possible, within the confines of what the two of you agree to.
And Because It’s Different: How To Manage Migraines From A Co-Worker’s Perfume
Q: My coworker wears very strong perfume that causes me to have migraines everyday. I talked to HR, and they moved the coworker from the desk across from me… to the desk next to me. With annoyance on their part. I’ve been trying to work well but the workspace is still very uncomfortable. What do I do?
Have you talked to your coworker directly yet? I know this might feel awkward, but most reasonable people genuinely don’t want to give their coworkers migraines and would try to work with you to accommodate this. You could say something like, “Your perfume is really lovely, but unfortunately I’m sensitive some fragrances and it’s been triggering migraines. I’m so sorry to ask this and I know perfume is very personal, but would you be open to not wearing it at work?” You could add, “I wouldn’t ask this if the migraines weren’t pretty bad and making it difficult to work.”
This is a reasonable request. Your right not to have daily migraines outweighs her right to perfume. But not everyone is reasonable, and if your coworker doesn’t agree to your request, then it’s time to talk to HR again. Explain that you appreciate them trying to solve this but unfortunately in order to avoid the migraines you need to be seated further apart. However, if moving you further apart isn’t practical, you might need to ask them to talk to your coworker on your behalf. Some offices actually are moving to fragrance-free policies specifically because of situations like this; fragrance sensitivities are on the rise, and most offices want people to be able to work without being subjected to debilitating headaches, respiratory problems, and so forth.
What other tricky wellness-related situations or issues have you had to deal with in the workplace? Let us know in the comments.
Photo via WOCinTechChat.