What happens when I ask for help?
Ina tono āwhina ahau ka aha?

One of the main reasons for not asking for help is fear of discrimination – that you could be treated differently, and that it could impact on promotion, training or other progression opportunities for you. On the flip-side, telling your boss can mean things can be put in place to support you, and any associated drop in performance is not attributed to you just not doing your job.

Asking for help

Being Men is a New Zealand Rugby (NZR) video series that explores wellbeing, healthy relationships and masculinity from the perspective of New Zealand men

Do I need to tell my boss?

People often struggle with whether or not to tell their employer or team about a health or mental health situation. People often do not talk about what is happening for them due to fear of discrimination. The problem is, if they don’t discuss their situation, changes to support them can’t be made for them.

There are generally three reasons people experiencing mental illness want to talk about what they are experiencing:

  • Practical. Where people must disclose in order to access services and resources.
  • Ethical. Where people experiencing mental illness feel that talking about their situation is the right thing to do.
  • Legal. Where the law places obligations on people to disclose. (See more below.)

There are definitely some benefits that can occur from talking with your boss, and asking for help.

  • Possible changes to work tasks and/or work arrangements can be made.
  • An understanding about symptoms by you and your boss can help improve ways to manage these.
  • You can access support services. (Note however you don’t need to tell your boss in order to use the chaplain, social worker, medical, psych or other NZDF health services within the military).

Overall, research indicates the benefit of talking about your situation is greater than any downsides. The challenge for employers is to make sure they create supportive environment and culture where it's safe to talk about our struggles in life, free from risk of discrimination.

The most basic sort of pressure is if someone starts experiencing symptoms in the workplace; in these situations, they often have no choice except to tell. If the symptoms are hidden, or not seen at work, should I tell?

Potential downsides of being open

Some worries people have about telling their boss are that:

  • They would be more closely supervised than before.
  • They would be isolated from others.
  • They would be fired.
  • They would not be hired in the first place.
  • They would not be promoted.
  • They would need to work harder than co-workers simply to prove their competence.
  • Information about their mental health issue would be passed on to others, and
  • They would forever be labelled according to their mental health issue.

Benefits of being open

However, being open about what they are experiencing generally helps people experiencing mental health issues:

  • Organise changes at work to accommodate the issues (e.g., time off for counselling).
  • Increases the chance that they will gain understanding from their bosses, and increases the opportunities for respect and support from workmates (e.g., he/she isn’t just slacking off because they are lazy).
  • Facilitate your and your boss’s understanding of your illness and symptoms.
  • Enables access to welfare systems (your boss can sometimes make things happen faster).
  • To stop worrying about finding excuses to go to the doctor, or about finding ways to explain the side effects of medication.
  • Strengthen workplace relationships and build trust.
  • To ensure they are not assessed as having poor work performance rather than experiencing symptoms of mental illness; this can have adverse consequences for their employment records.

Being open can give people experiencing mental illness a sense of freedom (‘I don’t have to hide it anymore’), and empower other people suffering to talk about it. It is also easier to educate others about mental illness once someone has disclosed.

Where does confidentiality fit in?

Commanders or managers can expect to know the following regarding an injury or illness, whether it is a physical or mental health issue:

  • The injury/illness diagnosis.
  • The length of time someone’s work will be affected.
  • The level of incapacity for work, and
  • Any restrictions a subordinate is under (Light Duties chits).

Medical personnel also have a professional responsibility to advise commanders of any health problems which could impact on an individual’s employability, personal safety, the safety of others or the efficient functioning of the individual’s unit.

If a medical condition (physical, mental or psychological) could have welfare, morale, discipline or security implications, your Commanding Officer will be informed in general terms of the nature of the medical condition by the medical officer, but always with the knowledge, and if possible consent, of the service person.

Privacy and confidentiality are taken seriously when accessing health services, and doctors and other health professionals will not generally disclose patient information to employers or HR. In New Zealand the collection and use of personal information is protected by law, this includes the “Medical-In-Confidence” information the NZDF holds. All medical staff must comply with the Privacy Act of 2020 or the Health Information Privacy Code 1994 and could be investigated the health directorate and/or the Medical Council if they breach those rules.

Doctors also have an ethical responsibility to keep health information confidential and to "protect the patient's private information throughout his or her lifetime and following death unless there are overriding considerations in terms of public interest or patient safety" (NZ Medical Association’s Code of Ethics, Principle Five). This means that medical records will remain private unless a doctor (or psych or similar) believes that there is a real risk that a person could harm themselves or others. If they believe there is a real risk, they are able to break the confidentiality rules and pass enough information on to ensure safety of everyone concerned.

Do I tell my mates?

It is common not to want your co-workers or mates to know if you are suffering mental health issues, or to want only a select few to know.

Even if you feel supported by co-workers/mates, it is usual to still feeling awkward about it sometimes.

Sometimes people will react in a negative way to issues of mental health, but remember, people often react badly to things they don’t understand. Give them, and yourself, time.

When do I tell someone?

For most people experiencing mental health issues, deciding the best time to tell someone is influenced by a number of factors:

  • Has something happened that means I can no longer hide what is going on?
  • Should I "get in first" before I get in trouble because my work performance is dropping?
  • Do I need more help as this is now bigger than me?

Remember, your boss or mates can’t help you if they don’t know what is going on!

How do I tell someone?

There is no one right way to do this. Everyone is different, and everyone’s situation will also be unique to them. Here are a few things to think about that may help:

  • Make a plan — where, when, who, and what you are going to say
  • Perhaps first tell someone at work you are close to and can trust, and gradually work up to telling your boss as your confidence grows.
  • Have someone go with you when you talk to your boss — e.g., a friend, co-worker, family member.
  • Think about some things that your boss could help with to assist you working through your situation — try to have some possible solutions and options, not just problems.
  • Be honest, positive and specific. 

Don't give up

If you have made the decision to approach someone to ask for help with what you are going through, and that person (e.g., doctor, boss, friend, padre, family member) doesn’t understand, isn’t able to or can’t help, talk to someone else. Keep on asking until you find someone who can help you.