If you follow me on social media – and you should – you know that I am a fierce advocate for mental wellness in general, but particularly in the workplace, which is where many of us spend the bulk of our time. Too many people are dealing with the physical and mental effects of stress and burnout while too many employers stay too focused on the work and not focused enough on the person. In addition to that, many people are living with a mental health condition that, while not necessarily making it impossible for them to work (at the moment) can impact them at work in various ways.
Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, PTSD… all of these and more can affect someone’s work style, preferred working hours or environment, etc. Employers need to commit to understanding how various mental health conditions can impact their people AND how they can support people who are in the midst of a mental health crisis, may be at risk for one, or who may just need some minor accommodations to perform at their best.
As I mentioned, most people who follow me on social media know I speak frequently about mental health & wellbeing, but it wasn’t until recently that someone actually asked me why this topic is so important to me. I was contacted to participate in a SHRM article on mental health in the workplace and of course I jumped at the chance. I started the interview by saying this topic is near & dear to me so of course the interviewer asked why that is. So now it was time for my ‘moment of truth.’ Do I give some generic “because I care about the quality of life for all people” reply or do I share my truth? I decided to share my truth. I figured it’s pretty hypocritical to advocate for destigmatizing mental illness while remaining quiet about my own. So I told the interviewer, with full knowledge that this article was going on the SHRM website, that I live with Major Depressive Disorder. Did I have more than a smidge of anxiety about it? Of course. But I weighed the pros & cons and believed the pros outweighed the cons. Tell the truth and shame the devil as the old folks say. (Not meant to be an ageist comment. It’s just something usually said by older individuals.)
When the article came out, I was preparing to attend the WorkHuman Live conference so I didn’t pay too much attention to it. No one said anything to me about it so I kept it moving. I already had enough anxiety about traveling and having to be ‘ON’ for four days straight at a conference. But now I’m back and after four days of listening to practitioners and celebrities espouse the importance of humanity in the workplace and being your whole self, I’m ready to get back to this.
So yes; I have Major Depressive Disorder. What does that mean for me? In part – Some days it’s a struggle to get out of bed, let alone go to work or socialize. I can become incredibly sad or be in a bad mood for no apparent reason. I can become overwhelmed by negative thoughts. I have severe insomnia. My motivation can lag at times. I have a tendency to procrastinate. These are some of the ways the disorder manifests for me but every person is different. None of this makes me any less amazing or effective as an HR professional but it does factor into who I am and therefore how I work and how I work best. And I’m not the only one. Not by a long shot.
Many employers would easily understand why someone with cancer or even a broken leg might need support at work but are far less understanding when it comes to mental illnesses (or other invisible illnesses, but that’s a topic for another day.) To be fair, some of it is a lack of education. Mental illness is so stigmatized that no one wants to talk about it. So no one talks about it. I believe it is incumbent upon us as HR professionals to open up these conversations as part of building inclusive workplaces.
In addition to talking about mental health, we need to educate our employees on how to support those dealing with a mental health condition, especially if we know they’re dealing with one, but even if we don’t know for sure. For example, if someone’s personality or productivity changes, it could be for a number of reasons including that they may be dealing with a mental health condition. Several of the things managers are quick to complain about could be due to mental health conditions. For example,
- Someone dealing with an anxiety disorder may find working in an open workspace overwhelming and thus it may take them a bit longer to finish projects.
- Someone who is frequently “late” to work could be dealing with depression so it takes them longer to get going in the morning.
- Someone dealing with OCD may take longer to leave the house.
- Someone with PTSD may be triggered in certain environments or situations.
When you start viewing and treating people as human beings, not just cogs in the machine, you develop a better understanding of who they are and how you can best help them succeed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we need to deal with horrible attitudes or subpar performance on a constant basis. We still have work to do and some people are just jackasses or poor performers. It happens. What I AM saying is, we’re ALL dealing with something. It may be a mental health condition. It may be a physical health condition. It may be the loss of a loved one, a divorce, family problems, financial issues… We don’t shut off those parts of our life when we cross the threshold of the office. Know your people. Understand your people. Get educated on how to best support your people. And if support looks like telework or flexible work hours, change in desk location or some other fix that isn’t a hardship on the organization – DO IT.
Do your best FOR your people so you can get the best FROM your people.
P.S. – I feel compelled to make a special note of the mental and emotional toll current events and lived experiences can take on people. A person may not have a diagnosed mental health disorder, but:
- If you are a Black person who regularly sees your people getting killed in the street by the folks who are supposed to ‘serve & protect’ us, or getting the police called on them for having the audacity to live & breathe, you’re gonna carry with you – into work – the fear that one day it might be you.
- If you are Latinx and see how committed the current administration is to deporting people who may be your family, or may be you, you’re gonna carry that with you – into work.
- If you are transgender and see that transgender individuals are being found dead, particularly transgender women of color, just because someone didn’t like or understand how that person identified, you’re gonna carry that with you – into work.
- If you are a person who lives in a crime ridden area and/or lives paycheck to paycheck, you’re gonna carry that fear of safety or instability with you – into work.
The microaggressions members of marginalized groups often experience in the workplace also take a significant mental and emotional toll. Death by 1000 cuts. This is why intentional inclusion is so important.
I’ve shared my moment of truth. What’s yours?