how to talk to boss about subpar work due to depression
April 3, 2012 6:06 PM   Subscribe

Boss wants to talk about why I haven't been in the office that much these past few months and why my work is not up to par. I've been struggling with depression. How can I talk to him about this?

I work in a very small group at a university. Culture is very relaxed, and we rarely go through HR about anything. Boss is nice and seems to care about employees, but I would not consider us friends (more like mentor).

When I started, my boss was very happy with my work (and this is probably why he put up with my current state for so long). However, during this recent depressive episode, I've been going into work later and later, and taking longer and longer breaks. This wouldn't be a serious problem if my work was up to par, but it's not. My progress has been slow, and I've been avoiding or postponing one-on-one meetings due to this.

So basically, for the past few months, I've just been exhausted, unmotivated, and can't concentrate. I get to work late because it's difficult to get out of bed, until it became a habit and I stopped caring. I get to work and stare at my computer, feeling completely useless for a few hours. Thinking that I need to get my energy up, I typically go for a walk or sit outside or lie down or take a nap. I'm gone for 2 hours, and then I go back to work, only to not be able to do anything again. I do some easy work, like reply to some emails. Just being at work is making me even more depressed, because it's lonely with no windows. Thinking that I'm not getting anything done anyway, I should just go home early and try again tomorrow. Rinse and repeat. I've also tried to work from home to avoid depressing workspace, but that didn't help, and it made me look even more like a slacker because I'm not even putting up the show of trying to work.

My boss has brought up not seeing me at work that often a month ago, and I mentioned something about having been working from home, but from now on, I will come into the office more. But then I went through a breakup, and following through with that seemed even more difficult.

Other notes:
-I've struggled with chronic depression, so I can't promise that this won't happen again in the future
-I don't really enjoy my job that much anyway, but stay due to the flexible schedule (ha..ha...) because I know with a more stringent work environment, my periods of slacking will not be put up with for this long
-I've been on therapy and medication, but a few weeks ago, feeling myself slipping deeper and deeper, started with a new therapist and new meds
-It's possible that I was starting to see some improvements, but then my world was shaken up due to breakup shortly after
-I don't have very much savings...I can probably last 3 months max
-My therapy and meds are through health insurance provided by employer
-I don't have a strong support network (few friends and no extended family)
-I'm in my 20's
-My parents live out of state, and don't know about my depression. We aren't very close, and I don't think they will be supportive of sending me money because I'm too depressed to work. At most, they'll ask I move home, which would be even worse for my mental well being
-I have nobody I feel comfortable asking for financial support. The few people I feel ok asking for emotional support do not have much money either.

I think my life is falling apart. I need this job to support myself and continue with my therapy and medication, in hopes that I get better and can actually be productive. But who's to say when that's going to happen. And I already promised my boss I would work harder, but I did not follow through. If I don't have a job, or the insurance and money to pay for my medical care, I have no idea what I would do. There would be nothing left standing in my life, and no hope for improvement.

This has been long and disconnected. Please tell me what to do. I know it's typically no advised to share in the workplace issues of mental health, but I don't see an option. I can only hope to be able to convince my boss to give me another chance. I'm going to talk to my boss tomorrow. I have a feeling I'm going to have a breakdown during the meeting (I typically during discussions of my hopelessness and depression). I'm pretty sure I will look crazy. Any advice...please...
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Hi Bob. I have a health issue that I'm dealing with right now and yes, it is affecting my work. I am working on it though."

posted by k8t at 6:13 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

All I can share is anecdata: on the one occasion I had to share something similar, my boss at the time, who really was kind of an asshole I'd seen do fairly ethically unsavory things and whom I didn't get along with at all, reacted quite compassionately. I don't know if it helped that instead of talking about feelings I specifically said that I was in treatment for depression.

Hang on and I hope everything gets brighter for you.
posted by XMLicious at 6:16 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't see how it would be a bad idea to share what's going on. Your boss can't fire you for having a diagnosed disorder. He CAN fire you for poor work ethic and not showing up to work though. Without the former information, he's just going off the latter. If he truly cares, he'll understand and support you. Perhaps even gettingn a sun lamp for your office would help with the dreariness and elevate your mood.
posted by two lights above the sea at 6:16 PM on April 3, 2012 [17 favorites]

Tell your boss you are dealing with a medical issue.

This is one where you may want to involve HR, at this meeting or right after. Depression is covered by the ADA, so you may also want to call an employment lawyer.

You need to let your therapist and med provider know how badly your work is suffering -- now may be the time for the big guns. You want to be able to tell your boss that you are aggressively seeking treatment.

I've been where you are. Even when depression is chronic, the way you are feeling is not okay, and you can get better.
posted by freshwater at 6:21 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

I went through a depressive period 3 years ago that was impacting my work and told my boss, who was understanding.

I also suggested a game plan to get a handle on the problems by meeting once a week to review the issues he brought up. I think the proactivity and accountability was a good angle to work, and it made it easier for me to get the effort to follow through, knowing I'd have to talk with him in the near future, even if it was just for a few minutes.

Also, is it possible this could be ADHD?
posted by alphanerd at 6:22 PM on April 3, 2012

Email your boss tonight.

"I'm looking forward to our meeting tomorrow.** I'd like to give you a head's up that I have a medical issue that I'm getting treated, and would like your help making a plan for improving my workflow/presence in the office/flex time situation while my doctor(s) and I sort this out."

You don't need to disclose right away (or ever) that the medical condition is depression. Your GP can be the person who writes a note if you need one.

Call a friend - however far away, and practice the conversation on the phone, tonight if you can. Have the friend take the role of the understanding boss, have the friend ask a few basic questions. Then maybe have the friend take the role of the skeptical boss. Then go back to the supportive boss. Seriously, like 2 minutes per practice conversation. Cry as much as you need to.

**Yes, I know that you probably aren't. But put it in there anyway.

My finances also suffer from my depression, which is chronic and tends to be cyclical. I have so been exactly where you are. While you're working on the work thing, I suggest talking to your doctor about adding one walk per day, a sun lamp or something else in addition to medication.
posted by bilabial at 6:25 PM on April 3, 2012 [22 favorites]

I've been going through this myself for the past few months as a teacher.

Talk to HR. Find out the process for / your rights to getting medical leave. Chances are, there will be a Medical Certification form they will ask you to take to your doctor to fill out.

Because I have done this, my hours per day and my responsibilities have been reduced. This was hard to do, because as a teacher, the idea that you would "give up" some of the responsibilities towards your students is anathema. But my issues started to affect my lesson planning and demeanor in the classroom and I was doing myself, and my students, and injustice in that regard.

In order to do some things well, I had to stop doing everything poorly. I have used this extra time during the day to attack my depression from multiple angles (better eating, exercise regimen, seeing a psychologist, seeing my doctor to discuss the impact of my prescriptions and adjusting accordingly). I have also, with just one week so far, noticed an increase in my productivity, and more importantly, an increase in my willingness to be productive.


1. Set up a meeting with HR (email them RIGHT NOW to set this up for tomorrow)
2. Ask about how to obtain Medical Leave (either partial leave, or complete leave)
3. Ask about how this may (or may not) impact your pay check (after x amount of days, it will begin to affect my pay, but I thought it was worth it, and my wife and I can afford it for now)
4. Get your doctor to fill out the Medical Certification form (or whatever your employer would call it)
posted by Groundhog Week at 6:41 PM on April 3, 2012

You definitely need to tell your employer that you are suffering from a medical issue that is affecting your work.

What you really need to decide, as others have commented on above, is if you mention the "d" word or not to your boss. You can just leave it at the generic "medical issue" if you think your boss would be more understanding/accepting of that.

Best of luck to you. Depression sucks.
posted by shortyJBot at 6:56 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a former boss type, I can say that explanations are good, excuses suck. If you don't have a game plan as to how to address your situation then you are making excuses. Disclose whatever you are comfortable with, and discuss a plan to address the issues that are negatively affecting your work.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:35 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm certainly not discouraging you to talk to HR, but please remember that the HR department is there to protect the business, not to protect you.
posted by Specklet at 7:40 PM on April 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

For Eru's sake don't go overboard and contact HR, lawyers and your mom. Just tell your boss you've been working through depression and have been getting some treatment. He'll work with you to come up with a game plan because he has to, even if he is a giant douche. He just wants to be sure that if you can't get the work done that someone else around can while you're getting yourself back to %100.

good luck!
posted by zombieApoc at 7:49 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you don't have a game plan as to how to address your situation then you are making excuses.

Would you ever say this to someone with a physical ailment?

This might well be the kind of attitude the OP will encounter depending on the caliber of the people he or she is working with but it is by no means true. You can go through medication after medication and treatment after treatment without even the medical professionals seeing any clear solution and find your prospects being pared down to risky, expensive things like surgery or electro-convulsive shock therapy. Someone who is becoming depressed and hopeless about the lack of a clear way forward in treating a condition that makes you depressed and hopeless is not making excuses.
posted by XMLicious at 7:52 PM on April 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

My issues were a lot like yours sound, and I waited to take any serious action pretty much until drastic action was required. If my experience is a guide, you need to talk to your HR department about what kind of documentation you need for FMLA and/or ADA accommodations. I know involving HR feels not fun, but it's pretty much necessary where you start saying things like "I'm too sick to do this work effectively, but I want to keep my job." Also, this can help you avoid having to take two months off of work like I ended up doing. :)

At the very minimum, say "I've been dealing with some serious medical issues that have affected my ability to keep focused and get here on time. I want to work with you and make this right in the long-term, what do you need from me today?"

Also have a VERY good idea of what kind of accommodations you might need, and what the minimum standards are for your job. Like, I knew I needed to be able to better control the noise in my office and my contact with a particular someone - and that I had to be able to come to work basically every day, for almost all the day, for most of the time (i.e., job sharing and lengthy absences are not compatible with my current position - accommodation like that would mean changing to a different job.) Being a little late might not be the end of the world in your current position, so that's good - provided you can get it officially noted and stuff.

If you're in America and this is a university of any size worth being called that, and he's had any training at all, he'll send you to HR to get stuff documented. But maybe he won't; academics are funny. And maybe this is a different country and then I have no idea.

Oh. And if you're in California or New York or another one of those kinds of states, you might have extra rights. I don't, but I'm not in one of those kinds of states. And you didn't say where you are, so.

Also, you might want to seek help from someone like JAN or the Bazelon Center or NAMI or DBSA. Even just to talk or do research. The Mental Earth forums are also a supportive place to hang out and talk with other people affected by mental illness. MeMail me if you want me to help you figure that place out - it can be a little overwhelming at first.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 8:02 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Forgot to add - you might have a short-term disability program through your employer. You might want to check on that - our program let me keep my job.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 8:03 PM on April 3, 2012

You need to request an accommodation for your disability. This will probably mean going through HR to formalize it. Among other things, you are almost certainly entitled to 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave under FMLA, which can be taken incrementally (i.e. 8 hours a week, so you're effectively reducing your salary by 20%, which should be manageable). There are lots of legalities around FMLA and its uses, but since you've been DX'd and are being treated, it should not be a problem at all to get it set up. If you and your doctor(s) decide that a stint in residential treatment or therapy might be the best thing, you are almost certainly covered under a short-term disability plan if you work for a university.

If your boss is using this meeting to initiate some kind of performance management plan, give a verbal warning, or whatever, these are the magic words to stop the process in its tracks: "I am experiencing a significant medical issue right now and am (will be) working with HR to set up an accommodation. I will very likely be using some FMLA leave over the next few weeks. I look forward to working with you to set up an arrangement that's minimally disruptive to the department, and I hope to be back at 100% soon."

FMLA exists for a reason: to help you get better. You deserve to take full advantage of it, and it sounds like your boss is pretty flexible.

If you begin to get emotional during the meeting, you can excuse yourself and ask to revisit the topic later. If your boss has been a boss for any length of time, he has had someone get emotional during a difficult conversation. It happens, all the time.

The other thing to consider is that he's probably totally aware that you're having a tough time. It's actually more likely that he's calling the meeting to try to get you help, or at least see what he/the workplace can do to help you.

Good luck as you work through this proccess, and kudos to you for getting help.
posted by charmcityblues at 8:12 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

"If you don't have a game plan as to how to address your situation then you are making excuses."

Would you ever say this to someone with a physical ailment?

Yes, I would. The game plan might be as simple as continuing to work with my medical providers to address my issue. "I think I can make small but incremental progress every two weeks. If you, Mrs. Boss would like to prioritize my work so that I address the most important issues first, I would be willing to meet every Monday to plan my week." If it was a physical ailment, the same thing would apply. If it were say chronic lyme disease, I would want you to say something like, "I am having a medical issue that affects my ability to perform my duties. I am currently addressing the issue with a medical provider, and have been told that I should expect progress over the next six weeks. In the mean time, I may be arriving later or working from home, but I will prioritize my duties and will make sure that nothing mission critical goes undone."

Do you really expect an employer or boss to simply say, "Oh, you are having issues? Do whatever you want then"?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:27 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm certainly not discouraging you to talk to HR, but please remember that the HR department is there to protect the business, not to protect you.

One of the primary functions of an HR department is to prevent supervisors from doing stupid shit that will get the company sued. This includes ensuring that employees with documented disabilities are granted fair and reasonable accommodation, and not subject to undue disciplinary action before these accommodations are in place.
posted by charmcityblues at 8:41 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

As a boss (but don't panic - not your boss), I would prefer that you talk to me before HR, especially if we have any sort of mentor relationship. I might ask that we consider that first conversation 'off the record' to some extent, but I'd want to be the first one you speak to. No doubt, any accommodations that are made to help you will have to be done through HR, but I'd prefer to sort them out between us first so that the arrangements work for us as opposed to being convenient to an HR drone.
posted by dg at 8:52 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I need this job to support myself and continue with my therapy and medication, in hopes that I get better and can actually be productive. But who's to say when that's going to happen. And I already promised my boss I would work harder, but I did not follow through.

I see you already have a lot of really good advice on how to talk to your boss and getting accomodations for your disability, so I will just say something about this. In addition to medical treatment, lots of people with various health issues (as well as totally healthy people) have an assistant come on an hourly basis to aid them with various tasks. You don't have to be super rich or super impaired for this. For example a person with not-great vision might have a person come an hour a week for $10 to assist with their mail.

Have you ever thought about getting someone each morning to give you a pleasant, non-judgmental and encouraging phone call and motivate you to get out of bed on time? It could be one of your parents, or it could be a college student or retired person you hire for $20 a week. You could also tell that person the list of work tasks you would like to get done each day and they could give you encouraging calls, texts, and emails to help you get through. Or maybe you could work out an arrangement where you could call them whenever you felt overwhelmed and they could just talk through the task with you.

For the depressing and lonely environment of your office, can you bring in a sun lamp? Can you put up beautiful photos? Can you bring in plants?
posted by cairdeas at 8:59 PM on April 3, 2012

Mod note: Reminder: Ask Me is not a debate space; please don't argue with each other about answers. Please do address the OP and offer your helpful solutions and reasoned alternative suggestions if you disagree with another piece of advice.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:25 PM on April 3, 2012

Personally, I would not mention depression or mental health issues specifically and would simply refer to a "medical issue" that you are contending with and ask for concrete suggestions for mitigating your issues. I have severe, chronic depression which is often in check, but on more than one occasion hasn't been, and it definitely has affected how I approach everything including work. The thing is, not everyone understands depression or mental health, and even some of the most educated people have very antiquated ideas about what it actually means. You are under no obligation to disclose specifics about any medical issue you encounter, but acknowledging you are dealing with a medical issue that is impacting your professional life should not harm you and may provide the understanding and support you need to pass through this period and maintain your professional standing. On a personal note, feel free to email me if you would like to discuss more in depth. Best of luck!
posted by katemcd at 11:43 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

- Say "medical issue" any time you are asked - YES.

Along with your meds, have you tried taking a good multi-vitamin? Try for at least a month. Do it twice per day if your nutrition is poor (you know what I mean here.)

The meds may be interrupting your ability to get nutrition from your food, and also, regular food isn't as nutritionally packed as it was before due to soil depletion, etc.. A simple lack of nutrients can cause stress, anxiety, and depression. Google.

So yeah, especially since you are taking meds, start taking vitamins, too.

This will help. You're welcome.
posted by jbenben at 12:22 AM on April 4, 2012

I'm an academic mentor-type, and here is what I would want one of my employees or students to do if they were in your situation.

1. Please don't stonewall or make empty promises. Especially if you've already made some that you haven't been able to keep ("I'll do better") then they mean nothing, and will further erode my trust in you.

2. Please do tell me what is going on. I don't need all the gory details, but I would want enough details so that I know: (a) you have a plan for how you are dealing with it; (b) I have some sense about what I can expect from you and when, in terms of work deadlines; (c) what accommodations from me, if any, will make you better able to do your job; (d) that you will keep me in the loop on this so if it gets worse or you need different accommodations, I can be assured you will tell me and won't stonewall or try to hide your poor performance; and (e) if at some point you think you can no longer handle it at all, you will come talk to me so we can work out a contingency plan (e.g., fewer hours, getting someone else in on the project, a leave of absence, etc).

By "plan" I mean something like: you are seeing a therapist. You are working on adjusting your meds. You are starting to exercise more regularly. By "accommodations" I mean: you would really find it helpful if I checked in on you more often, or gave you very specific duties that you could check off on a list, or we meet more often so you had to show up more regularly, or you want to bring in a sun lamp so the office is less dreary, or [whatever]. You don't need to know all of these, we can brainstorm some of them together, but I would want to leave our meeting with some sense of these possibilities.

Bottom line: it's not your fault you are depressed, and a reasonable mentor is not going to hold it against you. However, they do want (and need!) the work to get done, and it's a reasonable expectation that you keep them in the loop about how that is going... and if there are delays because of your medical issue, you need to work with them to mitigate those and make the fallout as minor as possible, within the bounds of your situation.
posted by forza at 12:23 AM on April 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

That said, before doing this I'd double-check the laws in my state on the off chance that your mentor turns out to be totally unreasonable; but almost certainly they will not be able to fire you for disclosing your depression. Also, comfort yourself by knowing that good help is hard to find and if they know that your current performance is an aberration then -- regardless of the laws -- they will almost certainly want to work with you to make it better, rather than have to go through all of the hassle of finding someone else.
posted by forza at 12:23 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since you work at a university (even if it is in the US( there might be a union for support staff - if so, even if you aren't a member, if you join today they still might be able to help by advising you on the legal aspects and offering support (even legal support) if things don't go perfectly.

Good luck! I've been where you are. It got better, and I hope it will for you, too.
posted by cilantro at 12:46 AM on April 4, 2012

See if you can get Short Term Disability and FMLA for this. Take a few months off and get through this episode--get your med cocktail adjusted, get some rest, do some therapy, get some sun. FMLA will prevent you from being fired and Short Term Disability will give you a paycheck.

Currently going through the same thing, and I'm about to do the same thing. It's time to say--I am too sick to do this right now and I need to take a break.

I agree with the others--I would be as vague as possible with your boss--"it's a medical issue" (which it is) and leave the specifics to your HR department/your doctor/the insurance company.

This really sucks and it feels like the wheels of the world will crush you if you let them.
posted by hotelechozulu at 6:47 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't assume that a few months off are going to necessarily HELP you with the depression though. Keeping active actually increases the seratonin levels, whereas staying home decreases them (and ups the depression)

It's quite a catch-22, the activity and exercise you need most, is the LAST thing you want to do.

"Just buck up and make yourself do something" um yah, like it's that easy, thaaanks.

Best of luck. As those above say, if you're in treatment, it's a disability and you cannot be fired for it. You CAN be fired for low performance or, well, anything else.

But even that's not the end of the world. Find your way out of the dreariness and things are much easier :)
posted by malrimple at 6:34 AM on April 5, 2012

You mention you work at a university. It is not uncommon for universities to have an employee assistance program that can be of use to someone in a situation like yours to do right by both you and your group while you work on improving your health.

It is perfectly true that you have a health problem, are working with professional(s) to improve your health in both the short and the long term, and are aware that your health being less than stellar is affecting your performance. This much information is likely needed to inform your boss enough to respond in a way that will promote a good outcome.

There is a lot of stigma around mental and emotional health problems in our society, so it's ultimately your call on what details you share with whom. Knowing or learning how much HR-specific training, experience, and empathy your boss has can inform you to make that call effectively for your particular situation.
posted by thatdawnperson at 6:04 PM on April 5, 2012

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