We Need to Talk About Mental Health at Work
March 28, 2018 | By Sara Gaynes Levy with reporting by Tess Kornfeld
After Brittany King graduated from college, she went through a new job every six to 12 months. “I couldn’t seem to find my groove,” the 32-year-old says. “I just thought I kept getting bad jobs. I would sit for hours and not do anything. What I did produce was sloppy. I frequently got called into meetings to discuss my poor habits. I hated it.” The cycle went on for nearly five years, until she started seeing a psychiatrist. That’s when she discovered what had really been going on: “I had been going through bouts of depression,” she says.
“It was as if I had been in handcuffs—physically and mentally. My undiagnosed depression kept me in a haze.” King is now a successful career coach. “With the fog cleared from my life, I can help others find work they love,” she says.
Today we are more open about mental health issues than ever. But we rarely discuss how things like depression and anxiety affect our work lives. So Glamour partnered with health and wellness site Thrive Global and pollster SurveyMonkey to ask more than 1,300 women how mental health issues—theirs or a colleague’s—impact their careers and workplace happiness.
What we found? A full 28 percent of respondents said their mental health struggles had affected their ability to perform their role. (That’s more than the 22 percent of women who the National Institute of Mental Health says have a diagnosed mental health condition—a sign of how many may be going without a proper diagnosis.)
“This is happening at every socioeconomic and professional level, from the bottom to CEOs,” says Beth Salcedo, M.D., president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. A full 58 percent of our survey takers reported feeling stressed more than half the time they were at work. And many women don’t feel they have anyone to turn to during tough times—53 percent of women said they don’t feel very comfortable talking about a mental health concern with others, and only 14 percent said they would talk to someone in their office if they felt anxious or depressed. Two out of three women said they did not feel their mental well-being was supported very much by their employer. Bottom line: Women are suffering, and they’re often suffering alone.
Many factors contribute to mental health problems, but for some women work is the problem. “We’re working more, we’re working harder, and the reserve of energy we need to deal with life stress is not there anymore,” says Dr. Salcedo. In other words, the way work spills over into every aspect of our lives clearly affects how we cope.
How can you take care of yourself when things at the office feel overwhelming? What can you do if a coworker is struggling and impacting your work? Glamour called in the experts.
Why Work Is Messing With Our Mental Health
The most obvious reason is the insane amount there is to do. “What is expected of the average worker today would have been expected of three people 15 years ago,” says Theresa Nguyen, vice president of policy and programs at Mental Health America. “People feel like getting things done falls on them alone, and that’s very stressful.”
But even though the mountain of tasks may cause feelings of anguish and isolation, some experts argue it’s the people you’re collaborating with that cause the most strain. “When I start talking to my patients, work stress is almost always the first thing that comes up,” says Julie Holland, M.D., a psychiatrist in New York City. “But they’re really talking about interpersonal stresses—people rubbing each other the wrong way, dealing with toxic personalities.” Even one interaction with a tough colleague can cause mounting anxiety.
“For example, if a nurse is afraid of the doctor she reports to, and she knows they have an upcoming meeting, that can impact her clear thinking the whole day,” says Robin Stern, Ph.D., the associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect.
“Despite the fact that we talk so much about work-life balance now, clearly we’re not achieving it yet,” says Dr. Nestler.
That’s not to say that if your workplace is high-octane, it’s by definition a bad one. “Some stress is good: It keeps us sharp and focused,” says Eric Nestler, M.D., Ph.D., director of The Friedman Brain Institute and a member of the Hope for Depression Research Foundation. But identifying when feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression go from manageable to problematic can be hard—for women and their doctors.
“If you were worried you had diabetes, you’d get a glucose test,” says Dr. Nestler. “We don’t have anything that black-and-white in psychiatry.”
King didn’t realize she had a problem until she felt like she couldn’t get out of bed each day—her depression had gotten that severe. Dr. Nestler says that if you’re having difficulty completing tasks and difficulty eating or sleeping or you’re feeling a loss of interest in your life outside of work, it’s time to seek support.
What Younger Women Can Teach Us
While 28 percent of all women in our survey said their mental health had affected their job, a whopping 41 percent of those 18 to 29 felt that way. But experts don’t think that means women in this age bracket are doing worse. “Young women are more willing to acknowledge these issues, and they have the language to talk about them,” says Dr. Nestler. Adds Dr. Holland, “It’s one of the weird side effects of social media: It’s made people more comfortable disclosing their diagnoses, and millennials seem to have a wider interpretation of what ‘mental health’ means [beyond the clinical].”
Dr. Nestler believes this is a good thing; if women can talk about their struggles with friends (virtually or IRL), they’ll be more primed to talk about them with a boss or a coworker, or a professional if needed.
Sometimes that means talking about someone else’s mental health, not your own: Nearly one fourth of women we surveyed reported being affected by another person’s mental health issues on the job. It can be difficult for anyone to ask for help. If you suspect someone you work with is struggling, open the door by saying, “It seems like you’re having a hard time. I’d love to help you find resources,” says Dr. Salcedo. And remind them that you’re a team. “We’re all working toward common goals,” says Mental Health America’s Theresa Nguyen. “They want to achieve those goals too, and they do feel guilt [if they’re not contributing]. So say: ‘Let’s talk about what we can do together to still produce what we want to.'”
All the experts stressed that having support is crucial. But perhaps not surprisingly, the workplace is one area where that kind of support is often lacking. Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace poll found that only 40 percent of employees felt that someone at their job cares about them as a person. Feelings of isolation only snowball. “From our research, we know that people who feel isolated at work have the highest levels of workplace stress,” says Nguyen.
Juliann DiNicola, 29, was lucky. She did feel supported at her office. When she took a leave of absence from her job at a nonprofit in 2013 to deal with her depression, she says her team was amazing. “I told them: ‘I am not present fully at work, and hopefully you will let me do my best to take a minute before I come back.’ They were totally understanding,” she says. “I think it’s so important to be able to be candid with your coworkers and have colleagues who get it—they know if I am having a bad day. It’s really helpful.”
So How Do You Talk About It?
First, know your rights. “It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you because you have a mental health condition,” says Arielle B. Kristan, an attorney with employment law firm Hirsch Roberts Weinstein. “Your company can’t fire you, deny you a promotion, or force you to take a leave because of it.” (This is true even if they just suspect you have a condition but don’t know for sure.) Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, employees also have the right to certain accommodations—such as an altered work schedule, remote work arrangements, or time off for treatment—for employees with any mental condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
Most companies larger than 250 people have an employee assistance program (EAP), which offers free counseling sessions. Don’t be afraid to ask HR if you need help navigating your search. “If you have a good HR rep and they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, there should never be any fear of retaliation,” says Christy Hopkins, CEO at 4 Point Consulting, an on-demand HR consulting and recruiting firm.
And don’t wait. “Typically, employees bring up concerns only in a performance evaluation,” says Leslie L. Wilson, the vice president of workplace initiatives at the U.S. Business Leadership Network. But you can—and should—bring up challenges when they arise.
“People don’t report often enough if their environment is causing them stress,” says Dr. Holland. It’s not uncommon for management to be unaware that something might be wrong until someone raises a flag—even if you feel like it should be obvious because you are, say, visibly falling behind on your work. “A lot of people work at 150 percent capacity. If that capacity drops, yes, it affects your work, but it isn’t necessarily noticed by others,” says Dr. Salcedo. “So it might still need to be brought to your boss’s or HR’s attention.”
Even though it can be a scary conversation, Wilson stresses that most managers really do want to improve the situation. “Mental health is quickly becoming a leading cause of sick leave,” she says. “One company I worked with found that the number-one prescription—by far—paid for by their health plan was Prozac. When people aren’t at their best, it affects the bottom line in all kinds of ways. Good companies are involved and concerned.” If yours doesn’t seem to care? It might be time to look for one that does.
Next step: Ask for feedback. “Sometimes just asking how you’re doing [at work] can bring stress levels down,” says Dr. Holland. “For many of my patients, the anxiety comes from worrying about what may or may not happen; it’s rarely about what’s actually true.” Hopkins agrees: “One of the things we hear all the time is ‘I feel so much better that somebody listened to me.'” (Bosses reading this, take note.)
Hopkins recommends not using clinical terms with your boss unless you’ve been diagnosed (i.e., don’t say “I’m depressed” if you haven’t gotten treatment for that, since it could seem you’re trying to take advantage of her).
Instead, focus on moving forward. “Say something like: ‘I have some stressors going on. I’m doing my best not to let it impact my work, but if you see anything, please make me aware of it,'” says Hopkins. If your boss says she’s already aware of it, take ownership. “Try ‘I take responsibility for that. I’m going to fix this by doing X, Y, Z, but do you have any other ideas?'” Hopkins adds. And make a plan to talk again to check in on your progress. (It can also help to figure out patterns in your anxiety or depression by writing down stressors in the moment; you might see what could alleviate them.)
If you have been diagnosed with something and you want to tell your manager, bring any documentation (such as a letter from a psychiatrist) and try to let the paperwork do the talking. You can also bring any ideas you think might make you more effective at work—King suggested a telework setup and noticed a difference the very first day.
“I was cognizant that to ease my depression, I needed to be doing something. Work helped me to not just lie in bed. But by working from home, the burden of performing for others was taken away,” she says. “I didn’t have to smile or brush my hair. That might seem small to other people, but it was huge for me.”
Finally, deal with relationships that might be adding to your stress. You can’t always avoid difficult people, but Dr. Salcedo says to try to replenish your emotional reserves by protecting your downtime: Leave at the same time every day, or answer only emergency emails after work hours. If your manager is the problem, Hopkins suggests going to HR. (Try this script: “I feel like my department needs help, and I need advice.”)
Making a note when someone does something that triggers you can also help, even if it’s just for your own peace of mind. “It can feel so much better,” Hopkins says. “Once you get things down, you can start to let go.” Then you can focus on the work you love—and isn’t that the point?