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How to know if it’s safe to talk about mental health at work

We’ve come a long way since the days we’d whisper the word “therapist” (or use the word “shrink” instead) in public, but encouraging all people to open up about their mental wellbeing at work can also have its consequences.

We’ve come a long way since the days we’d whisper the word “therapist” (or use the word “shrink” instead) in public, but encouraging all people to open up about their mental wellbeing at work can also have its consequences.

Some workplaces simply aren’t the woke emotional oases we want them to be, and in some cases, the fallout can easily outweigh the benefits. No one deserves to feel like they have to keep a part of themselves under wraps . . . but no one deserves to be alienated or denied projects because of a concern they “can’t handle” a normal workload, either.

So how do you make the tough decision on whether to be open about your mental health needs and experiences at work? To start, it’s a choice only you can make—if you have a gut feeling either way, you should follow it. But some people find that their employers or colleagues drop clues. “I overheard one of my coworkers talking about their own mental health journey to getting the right diagnosis and getting on the right medication,” says Charlotte*, who works at a mid-size company from southern California. “I took this casual conversation into account when recently, my therapist suggested I start taking antidepressants. This meant doctor’s appointments I had to work my schedule around. In asking for time off and schedule adjustments, I felt it was better if I told my manager they were appointments for my mental health.”

Other employers, emboldened by the twenty-first century’s collective effort to reduce mental health stigma, are proactive about offering their employees behavioral and emotional wellness resources. Lyra, a benefit offered by tech giants like Uber and eBay, provides employees with covered therapy sessions (both in-person and online), coaching, and self-guided mental health exercises. UK-based BetterSpace takes a more holistic approach by taking inventory of an employee’s needs and providing a wealth of options for fulfilling those needs: therapy, meditation, and gym memberships included. If your employer offers a resource aimed specifically at mental wellness, it may be a sign that it’s safe to open up.

It isn’t always a specific resource that saves the day, though. Companies like Netflix, who don’t make their employees stick to a 9-to-5 schedule and hold an extremely loose vacation policy, say they prioritize flexibility because it allows employees the leeway to choose a schedule that works best for them. This is handy, of course, when it comes to therapy appointments, the need for time off, and those impromptu breakdowns. (We’ve all been there.) But be careful—some companies are only so flexible because “unlimited vacation” policies allow them to avoid paying out vacation when an employee leaves, or because they expect you to work more than just 9 to 5. If your employer claims to be loosey-goosey but doesn’t otherwise place any focus on mental wellness, tread lightly.

Some members of the tech industry say they feel comfortable talking about their mental health struggles at work because of their bosses’ own vulnerability. “When I see vulnerability from an employer, I feel safe to be vulnerable in return,” says Lauren, who works at a smaller tech company in Phoenix, Arizona. “I am privileged enough to both work for a good company, and be in good company. I trust my employer and they have been very understanding of my anxiety and how from time to time it will impact my day and that I’ll need to take personal time to take care of myself. Without that trust, I wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing my mental health issues.”

Of course, not everyone is as fortunate. On the other end of the spectrum lie obvious red flags: colleagues who use harmful terminology and make light of mental illness; managers who punish employees for being upfront and honest about their struggles; and even the type of toxic masculinity that shames men for experiencing sadness and fear, to name a few. Not only are environments like these generally unsafe for the purpose of opening up, but they also may be detrimental to one’s long-term mental health, just like workplaces that encourage consistently working long hours and ignoring your vacation bank.

If you think you’re better off keeping things under wraps, that’s okay! Just as there’s no shame in sharing your journey with those around you, there’s no shame in keeping it private, either—after all, the whole point is to do what’s best for you. It doesn’t mean you can’t still adjust your work life to accommodate your mental health needs, either. “I am not open about my mental health struggles at work at all. One or two people know I go to therapy, but not my bosses,” says Mia, also based in Phoenix. But this doesn’t stop her from looking out for herself. “I take mental health days once in a while because everyone needs them.”

You are the sole decider of whether your work constitutes a safe environment for chatting about mental health. Schedule conflicts, benefits, and mental health days aside, one thing matters over all: your sense of peace.   

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.