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Navigating Mental Health at Work

mental health at work
Sabrina Dorronsoro
Published on
Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations. – Dr. Brene Brown

If we’re being honest, vulnerability is hard. When we show people our soft spots, we also usher in the possibility of being hurt. 

Personally, I tend to think most things worth doing require vulnerability. After all, there is no reward without risk. That’s why I want to be vulnerable with you today and share a glimpse into what it’s like (for me) to navigate mental health at work. 

I think the best work gets done when we allow ourselves to bring our entire selves to the table every day. And, in my case, that means carrying my mental illnesses with me - good and bad. 

What Mental Illness Is and What It Isn't 

Before we talk about my particular journey, let’s get a better understanding of what we are talking about. Technically speaking, mental illnesses encompass a wide range of conditions that affect mood, thinking, and behavior. The dictionary definition is as follows: 

Any of a broad range of medical conditions that impair normal psychological functioning and cause marked distress or disability and that are typically associated with a disruption in normal thinking, feeling, mood, behavior, interpersonal interactions, or daily functioning.

The tricky thing is: mental health challenges show up in a lot of different ways. Some people may have physical symptoms. But, more often than not, mental illness isn’t something you can easily spot. 

While I can’t speak for everyone, I know my depression and anxiety play out almost completely in my head. Maybe you’ll catch me zoning out or my chest getting a little red, but on the surface it’s all professional when it comes to work. 

This is all to say: you can’t spot mental illness like you can a broken leg. 

Chances are someone in your inner circle is struggling with mental illness. In fact, one in five people across the US experience mental illness with another one in 25 people living with a serious mental health condition. 

How To Name Your Feelings (And Why It Matters)

If you're anything like me, you're wondering: now what? Identifying the struggles you face is step one. But step two is where most people start facing some friction. How can you tell people about your mental health without admitting weakness? What words do you use to explain what is going on in your brain? How do you broach a subject that most people shy away from?

I don't have a magic answer or some feel-good solution. That's because all there is to do is tell your truth. There is always a little voice in my head asking: "But what if they think less of you for it?" My response: that’s their problem. 

Mental illness or not, every human being is gloriously flawed and people that think otherwise? Not worth our time. For the people that DO deserve the full story, finding the right language to talk about where you are at is hugely helpful.

Most humans just want to understand the WHY of any situation. When you can articulate what you’re feeling then you can give people the context they need to have more fulfilling interactions with you. 

How To Address Mental Health at Work

Context is crucial to me. When you have anxiety, your brain is prone to writing its own storylines. If I get a quick one-line note about an article being off, chances are my brain will spiral and I will come to the conclusion that I am definitely in trouble, big time. 

So, I try to let my managers know about my anxiety upfront. I make it clear that adding context to feedback is important to me and that, without it, I sometimes fill in the blanks. To this day, I have yet to have a manager use this information against me. In fact, every one of them took the information in stride. They gave context, I didn’t spiral: a true win-win.

When we can find the right words for how we feel, we get closer to understanding what we need (or don’t!) from jobs, people or situations. If you are looking to share more about your condition with a leader, remember to:

Consider what you want to come from the conversation.

  1. Do you need adjustments to your schedule?
  2. Do you want approval to make your hours more flexible than most? 
  3. Is there a code word you want to use for when things are getting overwhelming?

Be honest about what this means for how you need to be managed.

  1. Do you prefer receiving feedback in a certain way? 
  2. What should your manager do when they see signs of distress?
  3. Is there a better way to communicate with you on tough days?

Provide concrete examples of how this shows up for you.

  1. Do you need to take extended breaks during the day? 
  2. Should PTO allowance be readjusted to accommodate your needs?
  3. Are there any tools or processes you need to function better?

Showing Up As Our Entire Selves

You can’t be the fullest, most alive version of yourself without first getting honest about the cards you’ve been dealt. That can be REALLY scary, especially in a world that amplifies the highlight reels of our lives.

I felt like that too. It’s ok. We can still crush it, I promise.

Remember, pay very close attention to how you are talking to yourself in times of stress. The stories we tell ourselves matter. I like to run my internal monologue through a set of pointed questions. Consider:

  1. Would you talk to a friend like this? 
  2. Are you focused on solutions or self-pity? 
  3. Would talking to someone help? 
  4. How can I make this situation 10% better?

There is no award for being hard on yourself. Self-deprecation doesn’t get you where you want to be. Bet on yourself the way you bet on others, watch what happens.

As we navigate the world around us, words serve as our anchor. Language is how we express what's going on inside of us so that other people can come along for the ride. When it comes to mental health, there is no good or bad, there is just information. The more information you have, the better equipped you are to handle whatever comes your way.

In true Robin form, I’ll leave you with a little hybrid work analogy:

Hybrid work is a tool. 

The end goal is finding better ways to work

Your understanding of your mental health is a tool. 

The end goal is finding better ways to be.

Letting your leaders or team members know about your struggles won’t make them think differently, it will just give them more tools to understand you and how you work. Give them the whole toolkit.


If you or someone you know has a mental illness, is struggling emotionally, or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help. Use these resources to find help for you, a friend, or a family member.

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