Mental Health at Work: How to Tell Your Boss When You Need Help

How do you even begin to have a conversation with your boss about your mental health struggles when there's still a very real fear of repercussions that could derail your career?

Are you in trouble? If you feel like you're struggling, you're not alone.

The nation's collective mental health has taken a significant beating over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown. But a recent study is spotlighting how younger people, in particular, have been disproportionately affected.

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the study conducted by The Standard and Versta Research shows younger workers (ages 18 – 40) are struggling the most with mental health issues. Fifty-nine percent of Millennials and 71% of Gen Z workers now report mental health struggles as compared to 22% of Boomers and 35% of Gen Xers. Serious mental illness jumped from 10% to 16% with Millennials since the pandemic began, compared to a 3% increase in Gen X workers and a 1% increase in Baby Boomers.

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Data from the study shows Millennial and Gen Z workers are more likely to miss work for mental health treatment, and many avoid treatment because of work concerns.

“Millennials and Gen Z have helped change the conversation around mental health, and it’s time to meet them where they are,” said Melissa Oliver-Janiak, senior director of Benefits and HR Service Center at The Standard. “Employers must break down old stigmas and provide employees with easily accessible support to improve physical and mental health.”

But those old stigmas still exist. So how do you even begin to have a conversation with your boss about your mental health struggles when there's still a very real fear of repercussions that could derail your career?

'Hey, Listen, I'm Not OK'

Struggling with mental health is not always obvious to those on the outside.

Dr. Tanisha Ranger, a licensed psychologist who practices in Las Vegas, says a number of factors come into play when first approaching your employer about mental health struggles. The most important issue is trust.

"How long you've been at your position and how much do you feel you can trust your supervisor and your employer in general? Because if you have a decent relationship with the person who is your supervisor or manager and you can say, 'Hey, listen, I'm not OK, and I need to be able to take time off.' That's the ideal situation, where you can talk with someone without fear of judgment, without fear of retaliation," Ranger says.

But Ranger acknowledges that's not a circumstance everyone finds themselves in. "A lot of the times we're in a situation where maybe we're new at this job," she says. "Or maybe we're not sure it's going to go well."

In those situations, Ranger says it's important to only reveal as much information as you're comfortable sharing. "You don't necessarily have to tell people your business, right? You don't have to share all the details of it. But in order to take care of yourself and in order to be productive, you do have to say, 'Hey, listen, I have a doctor's appointment.' Do what you have to do to go about making sure you can keep yourself healthy while also continuing to do your work." says Ranger.

Dr. Amanda Fialk, partner and chief of clinical services at The Dorm,  a young adult treatment community in New York City that provides mental health support among other services, also acknowledges the palpable fear many have in first raising the issue of mental health struggles with a boss.

"We need to get to a place where we're just as comfortable requesting accommodations or time off when we're experiencing mental health symptoms as we would if you broke your leg or if you had the flu," Fialk said.

"In those situations, you wouldn't hesitate to go to your boss or go to H.R. and say, 'I need accommodations' or 'I need to take some time off.' And this should really be no different for mental illness because mental health also impacts your ability to perform at work. If it's an illness it should be treated just like any medical illness," she says. "Clearly, we're not there yet."

How Some Companies Are Stepping Forward

Some companies, including energy giant BP, are including questions about employees’ mental wellbeing in regular employee surveys to better understand how teams are feeling in real-time.

Starbucks is offering free virtual therapy to address everything from stress and anxiety to depression. Bank of America is providing telemedicine options for behavioral health and access to a free online and mobile mindfulness app to support emotional wellness. 

At the end of the day if you do ask for help and feel you're being treated unfairly as a result, there is legal action available to you.

"Discrimination or retaliation due to the fact that you have a mental illness that you disclosed is illegal, and an employer could get in big trouble for doing that," says Fialk. "It's not unreasonable to be afraid. But legally, your employer cannot do anything in retaliation. And if they do, you need to take legal recourse."

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to for additional resources.