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5 Meaningful Ways To Advocate For Your Mental Health At Work

05/23/2023
6 minutes

Even the most rewarding work can be a lot sometimes. Sprint deadlines, metrics, meetings, and code reviews — all of these expectations can be a lot to juggle. And it gets especially tricky when you’re also balancing childcare, college courses, or teaching yourself to code.

So what do you do when it all gets to be too much? Better yet, how can you prevent yourself from getting to the point of burnout?

While some stress is to be expected, it can be hard to tell when and how to ask for help. It can also feel a little scary to be vulnerable with your team leader when you’re having a hard time. Fortunately, you can take a few steps to make it easier.

“Advocating for your mental health” sounds serious, but it doesn’t have to be a big deal. Often, it just requires a little communication. For Mental Health Awareness Month this May, we’re shining a light on different strategies that you can use to make your mental health a priority in the workplace.

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Talk to your manager

Your manager might have no idea that you’re struggling or need some additional assistance. That’s why it’s important to set up a conversation with your team leader (or a trusted colleague) to start a dialogue about the specific resources you need to be successful. 

What obstacles are you facing at work? What changes could help you stay on track? Getting a better sense of your specific needs can help shed light on a solution, according to Kelly Greenwood, founder of the mental health organization Mind Share Partners. “Think through the resources or support that would be helpful to you, whether it’s access to mental health care, a formal accommodation, or something simpler,“ she wrote in an article for Harvard Business Review.

A few examples of working preferences you might want to bring up include whether you work remotely or in the office, your preferred communication style (like preferring email to Slack), and scheduling accommodations so you can make your therapy appointments.

But also remember that you don’t need to divulge more personal information than you’re comfortable with. Start by figuring out what you’re okay with sharing and go from there, Kelly wrote. If you have a close relationship with your team leader, you might choose to share specific details about your diagnosis and mental health history. On the other hand, you could keep things vague and explain that you’re having a difficult time and need to take time off, for example.

Going into a conversation with your manager, it might help to lead with a solution in mind. For example, a person with anxiety could explain how having their camera off during Zoom meetings helps them focus on the subject matter. Or if you’re talking to your manager about neurodiversity accommodations, you can mention the ways that it can benefit your contributions and enhance the workplace culture.

Set strong boundaries

When you’re passionate about your work, it can be hard to step away — and the lines can get even blurrier in remote positions that lack traditional workplace boundaries. Whether you’re working from home or the office, it’s easy to let work run into your personal life.

Setting boundaries is a matter of protecting your peace by identifying behaviors and situations that can influence your personal wellbeing. It plays a big role in maintaining a good work-life balance. Common workplace boundaries include:

  • Physical boundaries like your preferences around personal space and physical touch (e.g., handshakes).
  • Emotional boundaries like your preferred communication style and right to a healthy work environment.
  • Mental boundaries like your off-hours when you’re unaccessible and focus hours during the week that you set aside to be able to work without distraction. 

Every workplace is different, but here’s an example of an email you could send to communicate your scheduling boundaries to your team: 

I won’t be able to respond to messages sent after working hours. I’m committed to my work and always strive to provide the best possible output. However, I also believe in maintaining a healthy work-life balance. After hours, I’m focused on spending time with my family and friends, pursuing my hobbies, and relaxing — and I strongly encourage you to do the same!

If you need immediate assistance after hours, please contact [teammate’s name]. They are available to help with any urgent matters.

If you find yourself constantly checking Slack or your work email after-hours, try silencing notifications after a certain time. (You can also create an auto-response to let people know when they can expect a reply.) Along the same lines, fight the urge to check in on your days off or when you’re on vacation.

Setting boundaries can also mean saying “no” to additional projects when you’re at capacity, or rescheduling a meeting on a particularly busy day. It’s easy to fall into the habit of saying “yes” when someone asks you to do something, but it’s important to be mindful of your workload and well-being. If you have too much on your plate or you feel overwhelmed, speak up: discuss your priorities and time restraints with your manager, and be honest about what you can and can’t handle.

Maintaining your boundaries is ultimately your responsibility. The good news is, there are tons of tools and techniques we can use to keep ourselves on track, like pomodoro timers, email filters, and time-trackers. Check out our list of helpful work-life balance apps for more recommendations. 

Find (or create) a channel for discussion

There are general best practices you can follow to advocate for your mental health at work, but the best approach ultimately depends on your environment. Some companies have employee resource groups (ERGs) for neurodiversity and mental health.

“ERGs are created to build community among people with shared identities or experiences at work,” Kelly from Mind Share Partners wrote in another article. “When done thoughtfully, those that focus on mental health promote diversity and inclusion and provide support for employees managing symptoms of mental health conditions.”

If your company doesn’t already have an ERG for mental health, consider starting one yourself. Or if you’re a contractor or freelancer, speak to your point of contact about your needs and concerns. You can also consider adding a mental health clause to your contract that allows for adjustments in case of emergencies.

Seek accommodations if necessary

Some people who are neurodivergent or disabled are entitled to workplace protections and accommodations in the U.S. That might include flexible work hours, professional support (e.g., job coaching), or noise-canceling headphones and LED lighting (for people with sensory sensitivities).

You know yourself best, and which habits or techniques help you. For example, maybe you need an outline of what to expect during a meeting, or you work best when you can listen to music with headphones on. Let your team leader know what types of accommodations you might need to work at your peak potential. And keep in mind: Creating workplace accommodations will make things better for everyone.

For example, flexible work hours are great for parents, caretakers, and people with side hustles. They can also help you free up time to learn new skills or take up a hobby.

Don’t be afraid to speak up

Whether you’re asking for a mental health day, an accommodation, or a leave of absence — speaking up for your mental health is important, and it’s something that everyone should feel empowered to do. Everyone needs help sometimes, and being open about your mental health helps normalize the subject and could empower others to do the same. Starting a dialogue ultimately makes your organization’s culture better for everyone.

Make your mental health a priority

Work plays a huge role in your mental health, but it doesn’t stop there. Giving yourself room to play and be creative outside of work, spending time with loved ones, and exploring your other passions is just as important. (You know what they say about all work and no play.)

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