How do I talk to my boss about my mental health issues?
March 31, 2021 6:56 AM   Subscribe

How do I talk to my boss about my burnout and mental health issues? I don't even know how to approach it.

I'm having a very hard time. I'm burning out at work. We're at a particularly busy time at work. Life and work stress are starting to affect me cognitively. I can't remember things, I'm super scattered, and losing track of everything. My productivity is dropping, and I'm paranoid about losing my job. I've been w/ my company for 6 years. My last review, my boss told me that I'm valued. But I don't see how.

I have a lot of general issues. I'm bipolar, and medicated, but not in therapy. But the meds haven't been working in awhile. Also, I have no thyroid, and have gone through several medication changes in the last 6 months to adjust my levels. This makes things worse.

There's also a lot of upheaval right now. My wife and I live in Germany. Our landlord is taking over and we have to move, but haven't been able to find anything. So I'm getting even more stressed by the lack of stability.

I'm 48, and starting to get some physical issues that are impacting my ability to get around (hips, knees). This is having a huge psychological impact on me. I'm already paranoid about my age in my industry.

I'm functional, but not very productive. I have some major internal drama, and I think it's starting to seep out. I need to talk to my boss, and head things off. But what do I say without coming across as a needy, problem child? I don't know if my boss will have my back. He might? What's worse is that, next week, a new manager is stepping in between my current boss, and my team. He's new to the company, and I'm extra paranoid that one of his first steps is to evaluate everyone in the group.

So yeah. I'm a fucking mess. Help? How do I talk to my boss about this?
posted by Cat Pie Hurts to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: At my work, this would be a great place to start:

I'm having a very hard time. I'm burning out at work. We're at a particularly busy time at work. Life and work stress are starting to affect me cognitively. I can't remember things, I'm super scattered, and losing track of everything. My productivity is dropping, and I am concerned this will start to affect my work performance.

Don't get into the diagnosed mental health conditions or the landlord stuff or your knees. Just be very clear that you are struggling right now, frame it in a way that you want to keep doing your best at work but cannot do that right now. And ask for making a plan to take time off: maybe this is sick time + vacation time, maybe this is a structured period of leave, maybe this is reducing to part time work for a while. If you work for a company that has decent benefits, there will be options available to you. You just have to ask.
posted by phunniemee at 7:06 AM on March 31, 2021 [7 favorites]

Personally, I would give no indication that you feel you're burning out at work. I wouldn't say anything about your performance at work. Whatever you say can be used against you. I would say that I would like to have some time off because I have a chronic health issue that I want to improve. Get a doctor's note. How much time do you want off? Can you do part time after a couple weeks off? The less you say the less you come across as a problem. Boss doesn't need to know your internal drama.
posted by DixieBaby at 7:18 AM on March 31, 2021 [28 favorites]

Best answer: I literally just went through this. In my case I basically framed it as "it's been a rough year for me with this covid stuff and now I'm seeing a doctor for a chronic health issue (true), I could really use some time off". No specific mentions of it affecting my productivity or talking about the specifics of what my health issues are. Just that I'm having a bad time and would benefit with some time off. I would have provided as much detail as needed but only if needed because, like Dixie said, boss doesn't need to know my internal drama and I'd kinda prefer it to stay that way. But thankfully I got a leave of absence approved.

I did my research beforehand and proposed a plan for what would happen with my workload, possible options of using a combination of vacation + sick time, etc.
posted by ToddBurson at 7:51 AM on March 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

I second DixieBaby, but this will entirely depend upon what your boss/office is like.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:31 AM on March 31, 2021

Only talk to your boss after you have spoken to a medical professional who will recommend what kind of accommodation to ask for (time off? Flex schedule?) And who is willing to officially recommend/sign off on that accommodation in writing.

If you’re not going to do that, please think of what result you actually want, and ask for that. Don’t just drop problems in your boss’ lap—present a solution that’s easy for them to agree to. Leave time? Flex scheduling? Increased check-ins? Adjusted workload?

Your boss cannot fix any of the issues you’ve listed here because they’re personal issues, not workplace issues. And they’re so personal it’s not really his business or appropriate to share.

What bosses need to know and what you can say is something like “I wanted to let you know I’m dealing with some personal and medical issues but I plan to do a, b, and c so these issues don’t affect my performance. If possible I’m asking x, y, and z from you to help me accomplish this, and please let me know what you need from me.”

I’m sorry things are so difficult! I feel for you so I don’t want you to shoot yourself in the foot by indicating you’re not performing and have no plan to improve.
posted by kapers at 9:25 AM on March 31, 2021 [4 favorites]

My experience is with a US company, but it was that the only shit they gave was that I take time off and go deal with my problems on my own time, and that my performance should be back up to par when I return. Like, the whole thing flipped over to HR as soon as I suggested burnout.

Even mentioning a health issue could label you as a liability. I think your best tack might be the moving situation, so that you can suggest the reason you need to take leave on short notice is that you have to find a new place and move quickly - which is true and also something you will need to accomplish during your time off, and hopefully also recover from your burnout - which suggests that whatever is going on with you is extremely temporary and external.

My understanding in Europe is that it's generally easier to get medical leave, even for stress, signed off by a physician and that's largely all an employer needs to know about the situation, so it might be worth speaking to a doctor before saying anything at work.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:32 AM on March 31, 2021

This is anecdata but in my personal experience, 100% agree with DixieBaby, whatever you say can be used against you. Don't express concern about your own productivity, don't talk about mental turmoil, don't mention burnout. A few months ago I expressed to my boss that I had been having trouble concentrating/focusing due to Covid and asked to take some time off. While they on the surface responded empathetically and kindly, internally it was used against me in ways that it was impossible to come back from. If I could do it over again I would never have breathed a word about any type of burnout (which is so dumb, because in being frank about my needs and taking time off, I was actually addressing the issue, seeking solutions and coming back more productive, but whatever.)
posted by rogerroger at 9:33 AM on March 31, 2021 [6 favorites]

And as to not abuse the edit window, one more note - "productivity" and "performance" are in many white-collar jobs are very, very, very subjective. Suggesting that your performance is going down may give your boss and other colleagues ammunition against you, since "performance" may well be this imaginary quality based more on feelings than reality.
posted by rogerroger at 9:39 AM on March 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'll keep it concise and speak from experience, not conjecture.

- don't overshare

- tell your imediate boss that you're in burnout. give a realistic estimate for recovery.

- figure out what you yourself need from the workplace to thrive. quiet office, medical leave, looser schedule, reduced respinsibility, different role, part time for a few weeks or months...ask nicely for it. be prepared to not get all or part of it.

- figure out what you need outside of the workplace (therapy, exercise, marriage counseling, medication...). make it happen. this is your responsibility as an adult.

- create productivity measures for yourself. report them to your boss in a useful cycle (1/month?)

- inside, how are you going to safeguard yourself so this never occurs the same way again?

- what is your backup plan if this specific job doesn't work out? unemployment, new job, new field, at home parenting for a while...

- i seriously advise a therapist who can be a confidential, objective sounding board as you confront this challenge.

best wishes - _j
posted by j_curiouser at 10:51 AM on March 31, 2021

Just to emphasize what Lyn Never mentioned, in Germany it is typically very very easy to get time off for "stress" or even "burnout". Not to say that it wouldn't have repercussions for you, but my sense is that it is better to have a small ding of showing weakness than potentially really messing up in concrete ways and truly damaging your reputation.

I'm in the US, but currently on medical leave from work for somewhat similar issues. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about my experiences of what the pros/cons are (realizing that every employer is different, of course).
posted by nixxon at 11:12 AM on March 31, 2021 [4 favorites]

No no no no no, no mention of details to your boss. Forget that.

More than likely, specifically your memory issues will be helped once you’re at a good thyroid dose. The rest will take time to sort out - but don’t get the idea that any of this is permanent or unmanageable. It’s not. It’s just a lot at once right now, which is what stress leave is for.

1) Go to the doctor first. Get a note for stress leave. No mention of the reasons to your boss (old or new).

2) During your leave, sort out your housing situation. You will find *something*.

3) The rest - deal with things one step at a time. One appointment at a time, one day at a time. Your health problems are challenging but manageable. Thyroid then BP meds, once sorted will help tons. Unsettled thyroid could even be contributing to the joint pains.

I know it’s a lot. But I have a feeling that things will feel much more doable once you know you have a roof over your head. Tldr Use stress leave for that, then take one day at a time. Oh and just don’t even think about big picture things at this point (ageism and whatever). You’ll have time to make big career moves for down the line, you don’t need to think about that now. Any time a thought like that comes into your head, tell yourself to “park it for later”.

Take care and good luck with everything.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:37 PM on March 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

Personally I wouldn’t say anything, I’d just try to get a week off ASAP - Invent a sick relative, COVID exposure, or flu. And after that see if you can switch to 4 days a week (or whatever timing shift would help) so you have more time to recharge.

It’s normal and healthy to need a break and it’s not really your boss’ business what’s going on in your head. So just say whatever it takes to get a break.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 2:05 PM on March 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

I do want to note that a lot of people are likely answering this from the viewpoint of one American to another American ... the American worker-employer relationship is tipped ludicrously badly in favor of the employer, so that is where a lot of the instinctive "don't tell your boss a thing" advice may be coming from.

Such advice still may be worthy of note, but I would give heavier weight to advice coming from Europeans or fellow Germans. Just my thinking, at least.
posted by metabaroque at 2:48 PM on March 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you live in Germany, you presumably have German social Security and health insurance. If you do (and i assume you do if your employment is legal), go see your Hausarzt (GP) and go on sick leave. Your employer is not entitled to your diagnosis, it is illegal to ask you.

I live in Austria, and while there are some differences in the Systems they heavily protect the employee.
Ask your Hausarzt how sick leave for burnout works in the Bundesland you live in.

In Austria, you need a formal diagnosis by a Facharzt (a psychiatrist, but in German speaking Europe the role of the psychiatrist is quite different than in the US. )
If you we're in Austria, i could explain more (am on sick leave for burnout since 12 months) but perhaps someone from Germany will comment. Anyway, just go see your Hausarzt.
Once you have the diagnosis, Talk to the employer.

Sorry for typos, Auto correct thinks i am typing German.
posted by 15L06 at 3:36 PM on March 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you read German, look at the section Burnout als Diagnose in the Wikipedia article
If you read German let me know and i can See what i can find how this works in Germany and If you add your Bundesland this helps.
posted by 15L06 at 3:43 PM on March 31, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you all for all of the advice here. I did not approach my manager with specifics. We had a 4 day holiday weekend here, which gave me some space to relax. On Tuesday, I talked to my old manager said that my work life balance has been very unbalanced, and I'm going to need to plan some time off. I think he may have gotten it, and told me that the company keeps a workplace counselor on retainer, and I could schedule an appointment with them any time. He assured me that it's completely confidential, and that the company values me and wants to make sure that I am OK. I also met with my old manager who said that he was surprised I was maintaining the kind of workload that I had, and it would need to be spread out across our team.

And now that I'm thinking a little more clearly, even if the company decided that I'm not worth the trouble, my contract says they need to give me 4 months notice.

One thing is clear - I need to find a Fachartz, and soon.

Thanks everyone.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 12:02 AM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

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