Best practices for addressing a sensitive subject.
Wanjiru was burned out. After working nonstop and homeschooling her kids for a year, she was having a hard time finding the motivation to get out of bed in the morning. She knew that both her work and her parenting would start to suffer if something didn’t change soon.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, around seven in 10 adults in Kenya reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, a major uptick from one in 10 the previous year. And work became a big part of the conversation about mental health during the stay-at-home period when many people struggled to balance their job duties with caregiving, household work, and other responsibilities.
But mental health is still a sensitive topic, especially in a professional setting. “When thinking about how, or if, to approach it with your current or potential employer, ask yourself if your mental health is preventing you from doing your best work. And if so, what do you need in order to do your best work?” Peris, a career coach at Staffrite.
Know what’s available to you.
Employee assistance programs—which offer support like counseling or estate planning help for you and your dependents—have been available for a long time within many corporate benefit plans. “You may not be aware of all the resources you have, because there wasn’t much conversation about mental health until recently.
Companies of all sizes also have access to technology that can help lighten an employee’s load, such as apps that can help you find career coaching, caregivers, house cleaning, and other services, depending on your needs. Ask your company’s human resources department if they have any offerings like these that are tangential to the core health and wellness benefits.
Suggest what you need to be supported.
“Everyone has a different definition of what constitutes a mental health issue and a different level of comfort talking about them,” Peris says. Your boss probably wants to support you but may (rightly) assume it’s none of their business unless you choose to disclose.
If you decide to discuss a mental health issue with your employer, be ready to offer suggestions that will allow you both to do your best work and create success for the company. “Be proactive in communicating your needs, and only disclose factors that affect the work you’re doing” Peris says. “Talking to your boss can create a more trusting relationship and empower both of you to find solutions.”
Find out how potential employers responded to COVID.
If you’re interviewing, career experts say that the way companies handled the onset of the pandemic can give you a window into their culture’s approach to mental health. While ultimately you won’t know until you’re in the door, Peris recommends asking your interviewers about the company’s approach to COVID, asking peers how they felt management handled it and listening for themes. You should also look at the company’s core values as they’re listed online and see if those themes match what you’re hearing. “Everything is a data point,” Peris says.
Look for the lessons from your struggles.
There’s a lot of fatigue around the topic of the pandemic, but it’s still important to talk about it. As people return to on-site work, they’ll want to share their stories and experiences. Try to turn the conversation into a collective positive for everyone’s mental health by highlighting the constructive points.
“People have experienced extreme stress and burnout, but there has also been so much resiliency and innovation—there’s this new sense that anything’s possible now that we’ve survived this,” Peris says. Reflecting on what you’ve learned and adding in some humor can relieve some pressure and give you a new perspective.