How To Talk To Clients About Your Mental Health
First up, we're sorry we've been a bit 'shy' on the blog publishing front of later. We've had a few time-sensitive projects to complete, so it's been all hands on deck at CubeSquared Towers and our blogging has taken a back seat. For shame!
Anywho! Given it's Mental Health Awareness Week as we write this (although maybe not as you read it), we thought it would be prudent to reignite our blog with a post all about mental health, but in a business context. It's equally valid throughout the year.
If you've read some of our previous blogs on the subject (see below this post), then you'll already know that mental health is something we're very passionate about here.
Whilst mental health is a part of everyone's life, whether you have good mental health or not, when you're running a business and dealing with clients it can still be a complex subject to tackle and to manage.
Talking about mental health isn't always as easy as it should be. It's not only about having someone you can confide in but also about having an environment that lends itself to having those kinds of conversations.
When you're self-employed, freelancing or working as part of a small team, there are going to be times when, if you have mental health challenges, it begins to affect you and the knock-on effect is that it can affect the work you deliver for your clients too, so it's vital you know when and how to talk to your clients about it.
I'm not particularly shy about sharing that information (it's out there now) but, whilst it doesn't define who I am it does, on occasion, affect what I do in terms of my working day.
It can affect the times I work, what I work on, my workload, who I work with and, when managing a team and looking after them day-to-day, it can play a part in how I do that too.
Many of the long-term clients we have are also well aware of this and have, 100% all been incredibly understanding about it. Either because they fully understand and empathise with me, or just don't really care that much! If they're finding out about it for the first time now, then I hope nothing changes!
I'm also well aware that that may not always be the case for other business owners. If your own mental ill-health causes you stress or anxiety or the pressures of the work you do makes your condition worse, then being able to talk about it with your clients (if you haven't already) might help, but how do you do that? We're glad you asked!
Before we dive into that, I think it's important to remember that everyone's work situation, diagnosis and personal circumstances are going to be different, as are the relationships you have with your clients.
Whilst we've made progress in recent years when it comes to normalising discussions around mental health, we're not there yet and it's not easy for everyone to do, so there's a risk that it can come with some professional consequences if not handled the right way FOR YOU.
Obviously, I also don't know your circumstances, so it's impossible to tell you what's definitely going to work for you in every scenario, but I hope you can take something from this which, in my experience, boils down to going about it in two ways.
#1 BE OPEN.
This approach will be very much dependent on the kind of relationship you have with your clients.
Let's not forget that this scenario assumes you're WILLING and ABLE to open up about your mental health in the first place, which is often easier said than done. If you're not, try Option #2, but give this a read too ;-)
For those of you still reading, if you have a collaborative working relationship with your clients, good rapport, trust them and enjoy open, healthy communication with them, then this might work better when it comes to discussing your own mental health with them.
As anyone with any mental health challenges will tell you, there are good days and bad days. Good days will hopefully be more common than bad, but it's how you manage the bad days are just as important as the good when dealing with clients.
These can be boiled down into three scenarios;
a. Being Open with Clients From the Outset
This option assumes you have established at least some level of rapport with new clients. That could have come via your initial telephone conversations, emails, video calls or face-to-face meetings.
We certainly wouldn't recommend it being the VERY first thing you say to them when you first meet them, but once you get to know them a little and they know you, making your mental health part of your story can be a great way to introduce it into the conversation os it doesn't become an issue later on.
Let's not forget that they may well have their own mental health issues, so this openness can be a bonding experience between you.
If you haven't made this initial contact yet, then it's obviously going to be up to your to gauge how open you can be with new clients.
This could be done by having a more general conversation about health and well-being at work which allows you to ask some questions to get an understanding of how they view it and how they approach the topic within their own organisation.
It will also help you work out if they are going to be a good fit for you. If you get a lot of red flags like "I don't know why don't people with depression don't just cheer up", it might be better to move on.
Having a more generalised discussion can act as a precursor to talking about your own mental health journey and helps you gently introduce it into your working relationship, i.e. "The only reason I mention it is because I have..."
You can always leave those conversations with an open-ended invitation to have a more personal discussion at a later date in a more informal setting, assuming everyone is willing.
b. Build Flexibility Into Your Projects
As we mentioned, everyone's mental health will have ups and downs, so it's a good idea, when scoping out projects and deadlines, to build in some flexibility to account for those days when you might be struggling.
Even if you're up against deadlines, having an open dialogue with clients about what you're going through will go a long way to easing those burdens.
Whether you can call them, email, video chat or even send a quick text / WhatsApp message can make all the difference.
It's useful to have one or two pre-written messages in Drafts or on standby so it's ready to go and you don't increase your stress levels by thinking about what to send.
It can be as simple as "Hey, I'm not feeling too good mentally today so will need a little more time on this project. Would it be OK to submit it tomorrow / next week, etc" (Obviously not the 'tomorrow / next week, etc.', amend that bit to suit!).
When you are struggling, the main aim is to get you well again, so don't be too hard on yourself if this happens.
You'll find that most clients, if you tell them in good time and offer a solution will be more than happy to do their part to help you.
c. If The Problem Is The Work (or Client), Address It!
Whilst most clients are, at least in our experience, a joy to work for and their projects a pleasure to work on, that won't always be the case for everyone or every time.
If the cause of your mental health struggles happens to be the client themselves or the particular project you're working on, then what do you do?
Even in the most collaborative, fruitful working relationship, there will be times when the pressures of the job can take their toll on you and negatively impact your mental well-being. This is the time to address it and create some boundaries for yourself.
The first thing you need to understand is the source of the problem. What's causing your mental health to suffer? It's time to be objective!
Is it you? Is it the deadlines that have been set? Your own mental health? Your life outside of work? Is it the project you're working on? The person or contact you're dealing with? or is it the client as a whole?
It's time to be honest with yourself about where the problem is coming from. It might be time for a little self-reflection, but it's only once that's understood that you can start to address it and start to find a pathway to resolving it.
Even if the problem is the person you're dealing with, there will still be ways to address it in a professional manner.
As with many things in life, it starts with a conversation between two human beings. Talk to them as openly and honestly as you can about the problem as you see it.
This can be as simple as hopping onto a video call or messaging them asking to chat. It could be a simple misunderstanding or something equally mundane that's spiralling. Whatever the problem is, lay it out as simply as you can and offer solutions where appropriate.
If there is a personality clash, be honest and try to find that middle ground. Remember it's a business relationship, you don't have to be best mates, but sometimes a simple, open, honest conversation might make all the difference.
Consider every one of these stressful situations as a way to grow and learn more about yourself.
You may need to re-adjust some of your work boundaries to stop similar situations from happening in the future.
This could be as simple as letting clients know you don't read emails outside of work hours or not to expect replies 3 seconds after receiving a message. Look after yourself first.
#2 KEEP IT TO YOURSELF
If you're not in a position to be quite so open about your own mental health, that's OK. If you think that being so frank might seriously impact your livelihood, then that's absolutely fine.
As we mentioned earlier, as a society we've come a long way in terms of our openness when it comes to talking about mental health, but we'd be naive to think discrimination doesn't exist and be lying if we said it didn't!
There are still plenty of people out there who don't really understand mental illness and how it can affect us, and those who just wish to keep their own struggles to themselves.
If that's you, then this scenario will be perfect for just about every situation. If you don't want to talk about it or be upfront about what you're going through, then don't.
Instead, focus on your professional accomplishments and what you can do for the client. Focus on the work, your ethics and your skills, not the personal stuff.
Concentrate on how you and the client can best work together and create something brilliant that brings out the best in you both. Build rapport that way. Let your work do the talking if you don't want to.
When meeting new clients, or even working with existing clients on new projects, establish your own boundaries at the start. Let them know, in the nicest possible way, how you work and what your work ethic is.
Lay out your minimum turnaround times, what your lines of communication are, working days/hours, any time off you have coming up (including if you take any mental health days off i.e. every 4th Friday), etc. If you can build it into contracts or SLA (Service Level Agreements), then even better then everyone will know where they stand.
Even if done informally via email (best to have it written somewhere so it can be referred to in future if necessary), none of that has to mean you divulge your mental health problems or medical history but sets those boundaries up front.
Of course, you're still going to have good days and bad days, whether people know about your mental health or not, so how do you deal with it then?
If you are struggling and it's affecting your work, then remember you don't have to go into detail.
You know when women ring their male manager and tell them they're not coming into work because of 'women's problems' and the guy just says "errrr OK" and puts the phone down as quickly as possible. It's like that.
When you're finding things hard and have to speak to the client, don't tell them anything you don't want them to know.
Instead of telling them all the 'gory' details, just let them know you're feeling unwell and are taking a sick day, or that you have a personal emergency, or there's a family issue you need to deal with. People will (hopefully) respect the personal nature of that and leave you be.
Again, do this as early and professionally as you can. Confirm when you think any work will be submitted and concentrate on getting better.
a. Dealing With Difficult Clients When You Don't Disclose
As we've already touched upon, being able to have those kinds of conversations with difficult clients when you have already disclosed your mental health is one thing, but how do you tackle it when you're keeping it to yourself?
In many ways, you do it the same way but come at it from a different angle, but this is exactly where having a contract or SLA will help you.
If you're having problems that are being caused by the client, then reach for the terms of the agreement you have with them, even if it was a list in an email you sent with your initial quote.
Talk about your issues in terms of how they relate to the agreement you have in place. Summarise them against what is happening as opposed to what SHOULD be happening.
Once people see the two side-by-side, the issue often becomes more obvious which makes it easier to resolve.
WHAT IF THERE'S PUSHBACK?
Everything we've detailed here is probably what would happen in an ideal world, but we all know life (and business) isn't like that.
What happens if the client pushes back? What happens if they're not happy with you, the time off you're taking or deadlines being changed? It's bound to happen sooner or later, that's just how business is, but don't let it impact you any more than it needs to.
If the client is too pushy, too bombastic, not particularly aware when it comes to mental health or just not interested in finding a solution, then there are a few things you can do.
Depending on the circumstances, ask yourself some questions.
How Long Has It Been Going On?
If it's a new client and it's the first issue, then it may be that you're just not a good fit, or could it just be teething problems as you get to know each other? Worst case, let them know in a polite, professional manner and walk away. It's not worth the stress.
If it's an ongoing problem that keeps manifesting itself, then arrange to have a meeting with all interested parties and try to get to the bottom of it. Again, it might be better to walk away than risk walking into a mental health crisis.
Can You (or Should You) Compromise?
No working relationship is perfect, so ask yourself if there's an opportunity to talk it out, compromise or even renegotiate the way you're working together to push past it?
Can you reevaluate deadlines? Adjust boundaries? Revisit the price to compensate?
How Good A Client Are They?
Again, if they're new, consider just severing your ties.
If you've worked together for a while and have a good working relationship, can it be overlooked? After all, these things happen.
If it's a personal conflict, is there an opportunity to have a different point of contact?
Would they still be considered a good client if you can set aside the issue you're having?
Is it purely financial? Is risking your mental health and well-being worth it?
How Valuable Are They To You?
Clients will come and go over time, that's just the nature of business, so if push comes to shove, ask yourself if you really do need (or want) them as a client.
Can you replace them if need be?
Naturally, there's a financial element to the relationship, but putting that aside, what's their value to you?
Do they bring in other clients or is it just more trouble than it's worth?
Once you've answered these kinds of questions, you're often left with two choices. Keep the client and reevaluate how you work with them, or sever your ties with them.
Neither of them is easy and only you can decide what's best for you, but that's the key. What's best for YOU and YOUR mental health?
Obviously losing a client isn't to be taken lightly and it might mean a loss of income for a while, but you could reduce your outgoings temporarily, speak to other clients about extra work they might need or dip into your savings to help you in the short term. Sometimes, it's the only thing to do when nothing else is working.
If it continues to deteriorate and you end up having a breakdown or mental health crisis, then how long will you be out of work for then?
SQUARING THE CIRCLE
Mental health is entirely a personal issue. Even people with the same condition will often experience it differently.
What affects one massively, may not affect another to the same degree. What we're trying to say is that how you manage your own mental health is up to you, but like any business but it needs managing well to work effectively.
One thing is for sure is that mental and physical health are intrinsically linked. If you're not well mentally or physically, the other will suffer.
You're going to do your best work when your mental and physical health are aligned and you prioritise them, so if you don't know it already, work out what helps keep you well. Find out what gets you, and keeps you, in the best mental place you can be.... then do more of that. It's not always easy, but always worth doing.
Set boundaries, work at a time and pace that suits you, communicate with clients and, whether you're open to talking about your mental health or not, find a way to manage it that works for you and your clients and you'll be doing amazing.
We hope you've enjoyed reading this blog and have taken some benefits from it when it comes to talking to your clients about your mental health, if you choose to.
We'd love to know your experiences about how you've handled this in the past, or since reading this blog. Is it something you've tackled head-on or do you still keep it to yourself? What have been the consequences of doing so? Were you pleasantly surprised by the reaction? How do you manage your own mental health going forward? Let us know in the comments below.
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Blog photo courtesy of Hannie Van Baarle via Envato Elements