Are we allowed to ask for help at work, and if yes, how do we do it?

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Collage by Yunuen Bonaparte. Photo by Erik Brolin.

When Nashville-based writer and graphic designer Ashley Hubbard needs to take a mental health day at work, she simply asks for one from her boss at Coping with Cancer magazine.

But Hubbard, who lives with mental health conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression, wasn’t always comfortable talking about her mental health at work.

This changed when she saw how her current boss would go above and beyond to help accommodate employees’ needs, making it clear that she actually cared about Hubbard’s well-being.

“She’s just approachable about anything, and she has always been great about giving me benefits,” Hubbard says, noting that her employer does not have to do this since Hubbard’s a contractor.

In the workforce, people are often judged by their productivity, and anything that interferes with that — like needing to take time off for their mental health, for instance — can be viewed as a nuisance. This is why many workers have a hard time asking for mental health accommodations, or even mentioning that they live with one or more mental health conditions.

But being overwhelmed and overworked can also affect the quality of the work employees produce. Healthline’s sister brand, Psych Central, wrote about that exactly in this article about dealing with depression at work.

Some studies say that little productive work happens after employees put in 50 hours in a week, and a report released by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization found that working over 55 hours a week is associated with a higher risk of death.

For other workers, it can be difficult to reach out for mental health accommodations due to stigma, which is unfortunately rooted in some degree of reality.

As an April 2020 article in the BMC Psychology Journal highlighted, the disclosure of a mental health condition could lead to a decreased chance of people getting hired. It’s an understatement to say this should not be the case.

Tiffany Kindred, LMSW, a therapist based in New York City, explains that supervisors need to reevaluate how they view mental health.

“Hiring managers may need further training or education to deconstruct that idea and move toward an understanding… that people who struggle with mental health make valuable contributions to companies and society every day,” Kindred says.

And hiring managers actually have to do this. There’s legislation in place to support employees who need mental health accommodations, including during the hiring process. By law, U.S. companies are required to give reasonable accommodations to people with psychiatric disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This includes asking for a mental health day or even mental health leave, a strategy that, as it does for Hubbard, often helps.

A 2018 survey from the American Psychological Association found that taking a vacation led to 58 percent of workers being more productive, and 55 percent of workers feeling like the quality of their work was better when they came back.

Commitment is key here.

“A lot of people will take the day off and still be plugged in,” Kindred says. She encourages employees to “try to actually take the day off so that you can really unplug for a bit, and then when you come back [you’ll] be able to engage more fully.”

Personally, I have struggled with asking for mental health accommodations in the past, on top of the full or partial days I already take off due to my physical chronic health conditions. I’m concerned that I’d be pushing my luck if I were to ask for even more time off on top of that.

But psychologist Dr. Rosenna Bakari says it’s important not to view support for mental health as a burden. “You’re not asking someone for a favor,” she says. “You’re asking someone for safe space and accommodations.”

Despite the fact that some companies still clearly foster environments where employees are afraid to ask for what they need, others have shifted to offering support for employees’ mental health and general well-being in recent years.

Tech solutions company World Wide Technology, for example, offers counseling at on-site health clinics. Every Friday, advertising agency Juniper Park\TBWA sends out anonymous surveys asking how employees felt that week in order to evaluate its company culture. And Google has created weekly instructional videos for employees with strategies of how to be more resilient.

These are just a few of the different initiatives that companies have started taking to look out for their employees.

Paula Allen, the senior vice president of research and total well-being at LifeWorks, an HR services and technology company based in Toronto, is glad to see this happening. She feels it’s essential that companies value their employees’ well-being, use financial resources to support employees’ receiving mental health care, and allow employees to take time off without being afraid of being reprimanded.

“What employers are seeing in the workplace is that, even people who are not in crisis and don’t have mental health issues, they’ve been suffering,” Allen says. “This whole COVID stress has made them more on edge.”

In 2017, a tweet in which an employer applauded an employee’s decision to take a few days off for mental health, went viral, further affirming the direction bosses are — and should be — headed in.

While companies taking employees’ mental health issues seriously is crucial, it’s not enough to simply release a mental health inclusion statement or mandate. There are real effective measures companies can put into place that show a more consistent and meaningful commitment.

Yoga and meditation, for instance, are both forms of mindfulness which have been proven to improve employees’ relationships with their job and self-perceived productivity significantly.

Kindred recommends offering benefits, like vouchers to go to a yoga studio or a meditation room in the office.

Another way companies can offer support to employees is by partnering with mental health platforms, like Coa and Sanctus. These kinds of networks provide employees with resources, like coaching and interactive exercises for them to work on their mental health hygiene.

Having these kinds of partnerships also normalizes seeking out help at the office.

As someone who has been nervous about the hassle of restarting therapy, having services through my job would take some stress away from taking care of my mental well-being, and would assure me that I can be open about my mental healthcare at work.

As helpful as these solutions all are, it probably goes without saying that one size does not fit all when it comes to mental health support. People at different levels of a company, for instance, may need different forms of help.

Allen explained that companies need to particularly look out for their managers, as people in managerial positions usually have a significant influence on the people below them, which can spiral out to affect the whole company.

Studies have shown that those with bad bosses are more susceptible to anxiety, stress, and chronic depression. And, in one case, people with toxic bosses showed an increase in chances of having four or more LS7 risk factors (which includes high cholesterol and blood pressure).

When managers actually care about their employees’ mental health, on the other hand, it can make a world of a difference.

“Having a manager [be] able to intervene, not shut the person down, not isolate them, not reprimand them, but show them that they care about their well-being and recommend some resources, that’s hugely important,” Allen says.

Every employee is an expert on how their mental health affects them, so they are the best person to advocate for their needs at work.

When preparing for a discussion with a manager or human resources representative about mental health accommodations, Bakari recommends employees research what accommodations would benefit someone with their mental health condition and know how to explain why receiving those accommodations is necessary for them.

“You really want to [use language like], ‘people like me, people who are addressing this issue may sometimes need…’ so that you’re educating the people that you’re asking for help,” Bakari says.

For instance, if someone who lives with borderline personality disorder (BPD) needs to leave work for an hour to attend a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) group session, which can be an effective treatment for this condition, they could explain to their manager how DBT helps people with BPD more successfully interact with others and minimize self-destructive behavior. Both things could help an employee be happier at work and have better interpersonal relationships with colleagues.

If employees are overwhelmed with questions and tasks from colleagues, they can ask for a longer time to respond.

“Some things that people present as urgent are not always urgent, and being able to say, ‘Give me a minute to think about that… I just want to make sure that what I said to you is right,’ is important,” Bakari explains.

There are also steps employees can take right away to take care of themselves while working, either at home or in the office.

When an employee is feeling overwhelmed or overworked, Bakari and Kindred recommend doing some of the following activities to practice mindfulness and refocus:

  • walking outside
  • using the restroom and taking a moment to yourself
  • washing your face and taking a deep breath
  • using a meditation or mindfulness app for guided exercise

While work was a stressor for people with mental health conditions before COVID-19, the pandemic has revealed the need for companies to change the way they view their employees’ well-being at a new level.

As companies start to decide whether they’ll return to in-office work at full capacity, have a hybrid model, or continue remote working, they have to consider the pros and cons of each model — and that includes from a mental health perspective.

Allen says that working from home, for example, may limit employees’ relationships with each other, which can, in turn, affect one’s mental health.

But another recent study found that 70 percent of surveyed employees say working remotely is having a positive impact on their mental health.

“[Employers] don’t want to just jump into this without figuring out how to make sure that you don’t have unintended negative consequences,” Allen says.

Until companies find a way to truly accommodate their employees’ mental health, it’s important that they’re at least approaching this issue in the open and normalizing conversations about the challenges of working with mental health conditions, particularly during this shifting climate.

“As a culture, we all need to work toward decreasing mental health stigma,” Kindred says. “To do that, we need to all continue to talk about it and make it more normalized.”


Julia Métraux is a contributing editor at Narratively, and a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley’s graduate journalism program. She is also a freelance health and culture writer whose work has appeared in Verywell, Bitch Media, Insider, Poynter, and others. Métraux lives with vasculitis, a traumatic brain injury, and hearing loss. You can follow her on Twitter, and read more of her work on her website.