Making the decision to seek help is a big step, but how do you tell your employer?
When you’re making the decision to come in for treatment, concern for how your workplace might respond shouldn’t be a barrier. There are things you can do to prepare yourself to have an honest conversation with your boss about your need to take time off for treatment that will support you in your journey of recovery, as well as create the conditions for a more honest and open working relationship.
While this may be a potentially uncomfortable conversation, or the thought of disclosing about your situation causes you to feel anxiety, keep in mind that a conversation about your mental health has the same value as one about your physical health - they are equally valid and necessary to your ability to function at work. These days workplaces are more aware of the mental health needs of workers, partly due to the impact of the pandemic, including extended lockdowns, which have been challenging for even the most resilient among us.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, employers have legal obligations to manage mental health in the workplace, as well as to provide a safe work environment. Many workplaces already have mental health strategies in place, so as you’re considering opening up a conversation with your boss, it’s worth first consulting your HR and looking into your company’s policies so that you’re better informed. Your boss in turn may be supportive of you identifying your need for care, understanding that you’ll be able to do your job more effectively in the long run.
Emily Batt, Intake Case worker at South Pacific Private, says that some employers will be understanding and may already be aware of an issue, particularly if an individual has had to take time off work. In other instances, if an individual has been high-functioning in some areas such as work, but experiencing issues in their personal life for example, they may be reluctant to disclose the need for mental health leave.
In these cases, says Batt, “You’re not obliged to reveal a mental health issue, and if you prefer not to, we advise people to get a medical certificate from their GP, stating that they’re unable to work for this period. By law, the employer can’t ask why.” Another option is to take sick leave, if it’s available. In NSW, workers also have a right to mental health leave as part of their leave entitlements. Workers also have the right to have their privacy respected and, according to Safe Work NSW, to ‘request reasonable work adjustments if they are experiencing mental ill-health’.
Some workplaces have well developed policies around mental health, and if you’re able to have an honest conversation with your boss or HR department about your need for treatment, they may well be supportive and appreciate that you’ve been transparent. While your boss may not understand what you’re going through, you can help them by being clear about the fact that you recognise your need for professional help, and that you’re committed to make changes.
If you’re thinking of going down that road, here are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare for the conversation:
- Choose how much to disclose. There is no law requiring you to reveal a diagnosis, for example, the term ‘mental health condition’ should be sufficient. As Emily Batt from the South Pacific Intake Team says, “You don’t need to go into detail. Some people prefer to say that they’re experiencing family issues that require time out.”
- Be informed of your rights. Check in with your workplace’s policies around accessing mental health leave, and how much sick leave you have available.
- Ask to speak with your boss privately, at a time and place when both of you are more likely to be receptive and undisturbed (for example, later in the day or week, rather than first thing Monday morning).
- Be clear and professional. Take some time before the conversation to plan what you’re going to say. Write down a few points, so you can refer to them if you start to feel wobbly in the conversation.
- Know your boss and how they might perceive what you have to share. The aim is for you to receive the care you need - without putting your job at risk. So keep the focus on how you’re being proactive by seeking treatment, as a positive step towards your recovery.
If you’re able to speak with your boss and find that they’re open and empathetic, it’s more likely to make your return to work smoother, as you won’t be burdened by the need to conceal where you’ve been. You might also plan a follow up conversation with your boss, to let them know how they might support you when you return to work. They might also have ideas around adjusting work responsibilities or projects in the short term to minimise stress.
A first step might be to speak to your GP, so that they can provide you with a letter outlining your need for time off. Your GP at South Pacific Private can also provide you with a medical certificate, which will be available on discharge.
Having an honest conversation with your boss, if it’s done in a safe environment, can play a part in helping you to come to terms with your decision for treatment. Consider how this approach might support you in taking responsibility for your recovery, and building relationships based on transparency and an honest expression of your needs. It’s important to keep in mind that there’s no shame in seeking treatment for your mental health. One in five Australians seek treatment for a mental illness each year, and one in four Australians seek help for their mental health at some point in their life. Your decision to seek treatment is an important and ultimately positive step for your wellbeing, and communicating about it will help to create the best support for yourself going forward.
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