When It's Not You: How to Handle a Boss (or someone with whom you work) with a Mental Illness
by Thuy Sindell
People complain about their “crazy” boss all the time. But what do you do when your boss actually suffers from a mental health condition?
It sounds absurd, but it’s more common than you might think. The latest numbers from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that, in the previous year, 18.1 percent of adults had suffered from a mental illness.
For 4.1 percent of the population, it was a serious mental health problem.
Just because your manager is in a leadership position doesn’t mean they’re immune to mental health problems. With the amount of pressure and stress they face every day, they may actually be more susceptible to conditions like anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
If your boss does suffer from a mental illness, they may be unpredictable, irritable, and difficult to work with. So, how do you make it work? Here are a few things you can do:
Understand their motivation
Working with a boss with a mental illness can be frustrating because their behavior seems irrational. You’re never really sure how they will react, what they want, and why they do the things they do.Instead of focusing on how bizarre or inconsistent their behavior seems, try to understand their motivations. Why do they act the way they do? What drives them?
For example, if they freak out over a typo, their main motivation may be presentation.
They want to create polished work and a perfect product. If that’s the case, take the time to comb over the tiny details you might otherwise miss. If your boss obsesses over spreadsheets, they’re probably driven by details. In this case, make sure you are reviewing your work and ensuring that no details are left to chance.
The more you understand their motivations, the better you can meet expectations, avoid conflict, and make sense of their behavior -- no matter how irrational it may seem from the outside.
Follow their communication style
Communicating with your boss can be difficult enough, with or without a mental health issue. As it is, only 55 percent of employees surveyed by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2014 said they were satisfied with their employer’s communication practices.
But once you understand their motivations, you can have more effective conversations with your boss. Before talking with them, think about their concerns and priorities -- that’s where you need to center the conversation. If your boss is focused on results, think about how the project, concern, or question you will be discussing relates to the bottom line.
Speaking to their priorities is a start, but you also need to speak the same language as your boss. Observe their communication style. When do they look to communicate and how? Do they prefer face-to-face chats and lengthy descriptions? Or are they all about bulleted emails? Are they curt and to-the-point, or are they more emotional? However they communicate, adopt a similar style.
That way, they’ll feel more comfortable communicating with you and will be more likely to listen to and understand what you’re saying. Listen for clarity. Communicating isn’t just about getting your voice heard -- it’s about listening, too. Listening to and trying to understand what your boss means is especially important if they’re dealing with a mental health issue.
They may find it difficult to communicate effectively or accurately explain what they want. At the same time, they may withhold information in an attempt to hide their problems and keep their issues out of the office. While you can’t know what your boss doesn’t tell you, you can pay close attention to what they do say to keep things as clear as possible.
When your boss is giving feedback or instructions, actively listen. Then, summarize what they said and ask if that’s what they meant. Once their words are clarified, make a record of the conversation. Send a follow-up email to your boss that outlines what you discussed, keep notes from meetings organized, and save any messages.
This way, if your boss does change their mind, go back on their word, or claim they meant what they said, you have the record to show you did your best to follow their directions.
Talk about the Problem
The problem with mental health issues is that there’s a huge stigma, which means many people never talk about their problems, never get diagnosed, and never get help.
Some may not realize how severe their illness is or that they have an illness at all.
The same goes for your boss -- they might not realize their behavior or mental health is impacting their work performance. Don’t accuse your boss of having a mental illness or doing their job poorly. Instead, enter the conversation with respect and a genuine desire to make the office and the work process better.
Try beginning a conversation at the appropriate moment with something like, “It seems that you are acting more stressed than normal (or other observation) and I want to check in to see if how you are doing…”
List your concerns and bring up any inconsistencies or behaviors that make work difficult. Try to keep your emotions out of the conversation and focus on the solution -- not the problem.
Confronting your boss isn’t easy, especially if they’re unpredictable. So if talking to them directly is too stressful, find support within the company. Talk to a higher-level leader, an HR manager, or someone who is in a position to talk to your manager and take action.
Avoid the urge to vent and complain about your supervisor. Focus on their behavior and how it is impacting your work.
Although just 45 percent of employees in the APA study said their employer provides the resources necessary to help meet mental health needs, bringing any issues to the attention of those who manage your boss can help to get them the help they need. At the very least, talking about it will address the problems that make work more difficult than it needs to be.
Handling leadership issues is never easy, and it’s only more complicated if you suspect your boss is dealing with a mental illness. Be patient, be understanding, and try to resolve issues the best you can.