Telling your boss about your anxiety – career suicide?

17 May 2017
So you have an anxiety disorder – should you come clean with your boss?
Despite more people than ever before suffering from anxiety disorders, it's not really openly spoken about particularly in the workplace. I have had highly paid professionals, tradies, surgeons and lawyers tell me how they suffer from acute anxiety yet they manage to mask it and carry on despite feeling like they can't function, somehow they manage to still be able to.
The effort required to mask a mental illness can be enormously taxing and leave you feeling utterly depleted, on top of the exhaustion from fighting the mental health issue itself. Mental health issues such as anxiety disorders can be totally debilitating at times yet life doesn't necessarily stop and wait. Bills still need to be paid, studies still need to be completed, children still need to be looked after. If you are working, a timetable not of your own making must be adhered to, to try and stop the wheels from completely falling off. And for all of that you need to present a self that appears to be functional, to 'pretend' that you are fine.
The most common thing I hear is that with a physical injury it's easy, it can be seen. Any illness of the body presents some kind of symptom that can be seen and measured. But when the mind is unwell most are blind to it, except you.
At a recent workshop I learned that in Australia absenteeism from anxiety disorders cost the business community $2,500 per person per day. That's not including lost productivity. Considering anxiety is one of the more easily managed mental health issues, not addressing it in the workplace seems to be a lost opportunity for employers. With the right tools in place both employer and employee can benefit from having their anxiety disorders out in the open within the workplace.
I heard a speaker at a workshop the other day say that 'you can hide everything behind a smile' when speaking about how his close mates didn't even know he suffered from bipolar depression. And sadly he hadn't known about his own father's battle with mental illness over many years. After years of trying to hide his mental ill health he had been coming clean to his employers for some time, with great success. Not only had employers been receptive to his openness but his work colleagues were more than sympathetic, creating the space and flexibility to meet his varying and unpredictable needs. Although his story may sound like he struck it lucky with a very supportive employer, it's actually not as rare as you might think.

But there may be barriers, perceived or real, about coming out about your anxiety to your boss:

1. Weakness – the idea that because you suffer from anxiety you are fragile, weak or that you can't handle it and therefore are not fully equipped to carry out your duties. This may be the case at peak times of ill health but that's not all the time.
2. Unreliable – when and where the anxiety takes its grip is unpredictable and therefore you can't be relied upon to deliver or contribute when required.
3. That you'll be ostracised for being different or sub-standard. Many who suffer from mental ill health feel lonely and isolated thinking they are alone in their suffering, but the real story is that it is more common than ever before. It's highly likely that a peer, colleague or even your boss could be unwell also.
Mindfulness and employee well being has climbed up companies' priority list; to improve retention and avoid IP or skills loss. The relief you will feel by sharing your burden with your employer could enable you to be your true self at your workplace and provide you the support and flexibility you need to get you back to optimal health. The only way is up.
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