The Importance of Mental Health Self-Advocacy in the Workplace
Haley Urbanik, Co-Founder
When I was 13 years old, I had my first panic attack. I remember it vividly; I was sitting in the computer room at my middle school when I suddenly felt out of control. My heart was pounding, eyes were watering, and I felt like my chest was so tight I could barely get air. I was shaking, sweating, and dizzy, and I remember grabbing the desk with all of my strength to try to stay grounded as I felt like I was so out of control I was going to collapse. I silently but desperately looked around the room to see if anyone noticed that my world was ending, but everyone was focused on the screen in front of them. Starting at that moment, I began to have them daily, whether it was reading out loud in class, walking down the hallway, giving a presentation, or sitting in a crowded room with no easy exit.
This struggle has stayed with me, fluctuating in frequency and intensity, for the last 11 years. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder when I was 17, and have been getting treatment since. Going through college and entering the workforce with an anxiety disorder was incredibly difficult, but I learned invaluable lessons that I hope can help others in a similar situation.
The most important and helpful strategy for me has been self-advocacy. Getting to the point where you’re able to advocate for yourself takes time, but the value of speaking your truth and getting accommodations is immeasurable. I began this by first receiving accommodations for my classes in college, and then as I entered the workforce I continued to ask for what I needed.
As an employee, here are some steps you can take towards self-advocacy:
Understand your diagnosis and ways to manage symptoms that work the best for you and make a plan for what you need to be successful in the workplace.
Set up a time to talk to your manager about your struggles. This does not need to be in detail, however, enough that they will understand how your work is impacted.
"I’m unable to share my ideas due to severe anxiety when I speak up and have attention on me, but I do want to contribute."
Be specific about the aspects of your job that you’ll need accommodations for, and have solutions for how you do them in a way that will work for you and your team.
"I will share my ideas with a co-worker who will say them on my behalf, I will send a follow-up email, or I will meet individually with the meeting or project leader."
Plan regular check-ins with your manager to see how the accommodations are working and discuss any changes you need to make to your plan.
"I’d like to try sharing more in the next meeting, if you notice I’m struggling would you be able to step in and speak?"
As a leader, here are ways to help an employee who approaches you with mental health struggles:
Educate yourself and stay up to date on the resources available, such as the Crisis Text Line or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and any company resources or protocols in place for mental health.
Make it known that this is an understanding, safe, and supportive environment and that you are there for your employees to talk to.
Listen with empathy and open-mindedness.
"This must be very hard for you. I appreciate you sharing this with me."
Work collaboratively with the employee on solutions that accommodate them and do not compromise the work.
"I’d like to help the best way that I can. What do you need in order to be successful?"
Have the employee’s back. If the employee says they want to try something out of their comfort zone and may need support, be there. If you notice the employee is struggling to share their idea in the meeting, for example, you may support them by saying something such as:
"<Employee name> and I discussed our approach before the meeting and I’d like to add to the great conversation they've started."
Plan frequent check-ins with this employee.
"How are you doing today? Are the accommodations helpful for you? Do we need to make any adjustments?"
While there are many other steps you can take, one of the most important is making sure that honesty is met with empathy. It is brave for people to speak up about what they’re going through and ask for what they need, and feeling heard and understood can make all of the difference.