Chances are you’ve heard stories of high-profile celebrities like Lizzo, Ariana Grande and Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness opening up about their personal challenges with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. While these stories are important in helping to break down societal stigma at large, the workplace remains impervious. Research shows that while nearly 60% of U.S. employees experienced symptoms of a mental health condition in the past year, the same percentage had never spoken to anyone at work about their mental health status.
Business leaders are the equivalent of celebrity influence in the workplace. To reduce stigma in the workplace, it’s going to require business leaders to share their stories publicly and within their organizations. Businesses have been more vocal and intentional in communicating support for LGBTQ+ equality, homelessness and other issues, pushing the dial on cultural change. Mental health in the workplace requires similar efforts.
Earlier this year, leaders across industries came together at Mind Share Partners’ Mental Health at Work 2019 Conference to discuss how going first in sharing their own mental health challenges has created change in their organizations.
Robert Gill, who has held senior HR roles at various San Francisco Bay Area tech companies and currently works at Square, shared: “I'm pretty open about being gay working in San Francisco. I don’t have to think twice about it. But it felt like it was a whole other coming out process when it came to my mental health stuff.”
Gill realized he could help destigmatize mental health using the influence of both his role and job function by being open about his own journey. “I spent so much time as an HR generalist and HR business partner counseling people who were coming to me with diagnosable conditions… And I felt sometimes like a fraud if I didn't sometimes just say ‘Hey, I got this, too, and I'm dealing with this issue.’ I noticed that [doing this] really changed the dialogue. People were no longer scared thinking, ‘Is he going to believe me?’”
Leaders Can Smash Stereotypes When They Talk About Mental Health
The persistence of stereotypes tied to mental health conditions makes it feel unsafe to talk about it, even for leaders. Stacey Sprenkel, Partner at international law firm Morrison & Foerster shared, “For me, the way that mental health issues and stress manifest themselves is in physical ways… I had pneumonia four times in a five-year period, significant back problems and a lot of different challenges that I was always advised and told to downplay because it didn't put me on the path to success… I talked about this [on a panel at Morrison Foerster about mental health], and after the fact, I had a lot of really positive feedback from people about how much they could relate to what I said.”
Later, Sprenkel got a comment that her story “wasn’t really a mental health issue.” Sprenkel highlighted that part of the problem is that people view mental health in an outdated lens of mental illness when in reality, mental health is a continuum.
Jason Saltzman, founder and CEO of the entrepreneurial hub Alley, also shared his experience: “When you're trying to raise capital, and you’re trying to build a team and you're trying to instill confidence that you can execute certain things, if there's a kink in your armor… it could be very problematic for you to move forward with people that would support you.”
Research shows that the level of seniority has no impact on who does and doesn’t struggle with mental health. Saltzman learned that being open about his own experience was not a weakness, but in fact courageous, and humanized his leadership.
Leaders Lay The Groundwork For Workplace Culture Change
When leaders advocate for mental health, they catalyze change not only internally within their companies, but also externally by inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.
Meredith Arthur, who has held content marketing roles at various San Francisco Bay Area tech companies and is Founder of Beautiful Voyager, pushed the conversation further, emphasizing the moral imperative for companies to break the stigma around mental health at work: “If you were working in a company that hated women, what would you say to yourself? [To say], ‘Well, it's good for you that you're in a company that likes women, but in my company, we just don't like women.’ I mean, that is unacceptable… It is a thing of the past. And [mental health stigma] will become a thing of the past.”
The New York Times and Reuters recently reported that company culture change is the cutting edge of mental health benefits. The article shares how a cultural shift toward openness, from the C-suite on down, is most effective in truly supporting employee mental health.
Ultimately, the panelists unanimously agreed that leaders must go first to change the culture of mental health at work for employees, teams and companies as a whole. While it can feel scary for fear of judgment and it can be challenging to find the right words, Meredith Arthur encouraged leaders to embrace the awkwardness in the spirit of authenticity.
As she eloquently explained, "You’ve got to be gawky to get graceful because there is a ‘gawkyness’ to talking about these things. You can feel like you have braces and a perm when you first start talking... But once you've done it a few times you start to learn how to resonate with the people that you're talking to, and you start to get more comfortable with it.”
Whether through sharing a personal story or becoming more proactive in encouraging mentally healthy practices, policies and programs at their companies, leaders must start the conversation.