I imagine the topic of managing mental health in the workplace will be more relevant in the post-COVID era than ever before. While I hope none of this is new, I think it’s worth bringing up again as we enter the “new normal.”
That Was Then
It was early October, 2018. I had just gotten back from a three-week work sprint which included a 9-day European tour where I visited three of our offices across Europe to conduct brand workshops. Before I left for the tour, I had an 80-hour work week where I went without sleep in order to rewrite our corporate brand guidelines. Simultaneously I was writing all the copy and project managing a new corporate website.
I presented the website on Day 9 of my Euro tour to our executive team of international partners…and took a licking. There was still a lot of work unfinished (including the dreaded translation function), politics and balancing of cultural preferences, meanwhile I was exhausted. I actually started having a panic attack sitting in the conference room as partner after partner weighed-in. I got on a plane after that meeting, flew directly to Philadelphia, and on Day 10 played maid-of-honor in my sister’s wedding.
By Monday, Day 12, I broke. I sat my direct boss down (a man for whom I have the utmost respect) and the managing partner of our US practice (another confidant), and I said:
Guys, I can’t do it. I’m bipolar. I have officially been pushed too far. This can never happen again. I need help. These last few weeks we couldn’t take anything ‘off my plate’ because of deadlines and lofty expectations by the Board. Now, we need to let off the gas.
And we did. We never had to have that conversation again. From that point on, if I needed to work from home, no question was asked. I needed a couple days off, no question was asked. They knew I was a great employee and I had a ton of heart, I just needed a bit more help in order to be at my best 100% of the time. So after that conversation, we put a plan into place to afford me necessary accommodations.
But why didn’t we have a policy to turn to for assistance, for guidance? Where was HR in all of this? We had policies on the clothing and tattoos, but not on how to protect our employees’ mental health? It had to change.
This Is Now
Every organization, large and small, for-profit and non-profit, local, regional, and international footprint, should be drafting in this moment updated mental health policies. To be honest, if you’re an organization that DOES NOT have a mental health policy yet, you’re unacceptably late to the game. There is absolutely no excuse, as organizations around the world are asking people to get on public transportation and go into an office environment that may or may not be aptly situated to meet post-COVID work space standards, to DISREGARD mental health in the workplace.
Mental health awareness has been a hot topic for decades now, and it’s nothing short of ignorant to pretend “oh, this has never been something we’ve dealt with before so we don’t have any resources on how to handle it.” (Also, ignorant is generous. It’s irresponsible and unethical.) Mental health illness has existed in your workplace for years. As a business owner or executive, whether it’s at Amazon or a small tech start-up, you have the fiduciary duty to be informed and make ethical and prudent decisions around issues not limited to diversity and inclusion, gender equity, and mental health. From preventing burnout and increased productivity, to more positive overall outlook and better culture, the benefits of a good mental health program will pay an employer back tenfold.
I’m Not The First
It is my hope that this post is redundant. That anyone reading this has read these same key points 100x before. However, the unfortunate reality is that many organizations have seen this messaging and found an excuse to avoid action (too small, too big, too expensive, too hard) OR ignored the topic altogether. Each time I’ve started the “FIRST” REAL dialogue with any supervisor about mental health, I think, “You’ve got to be kidding. I can’t be the first employee you have hired with mental health illness.” I refuse to believe that in an organization that has existed for even just a few years, there has been no incident or substantive discussion around mental health.
NOW, do I disclose my mental health illness when applying for a job? No. Because of exactly what I just outlined. The second I say I have a disability, more specifically, a mental health disability, it’s game over. Unprepared organizations don’t know how to handle mental health. For the record, I’ve tried the disability thing. I have applied to jobs with the disability on my application and have never once heard from those organizations for an interview. The stigma is real.
My ability to complete a task or project has NEVER ONCE been impacted by my mental health illness. If anything, I am a better employee because of my disability as I am a gifted bipolar person with incredible creative skills, especially while in a manic episode. So understand, (huge generalization here) I can do more as a bipolar person than someone without bipolar. I am faster. I am a more critical thinker. I am more imaginative. I am more intuitive. This is one of the benefits to being bipolar and being gifted. This is likely true of many individuals applying or already working for you who navigate mental health illness in the workplace everyday.
4 Immediate Action Steps To A Healthier Workplace
So post-COVID, what can you do as a business owner or executive to address mental health in the workplace?
1. As a non-expert, I might suggest talking to a professional in this area. And no, don’t hand people some hotline number to call and think that’s enough. It’s not. Go talk to a consultant who can help you draft an adequate mental health policy with necessary accommodations to keep employees healthy.
2. Host optional workshops and speakers who can provide constructive tips and tools that give employees communication skills when speaking with managers and colleagues. This will also demonstrate for colleagues how to help and support one another.
3. Make it easier to get help. Insurance covers virtually none of my mental health costs. Find mental health professionals to utilize as a corporate resource and provide funds for self-care. If you are willing to help people pay for parking and commuting, you should be willing to provide a few extra dollars to go to a yoga class, go to the gym, pay for meds?
4. Look to your peers who have for years been prioritizing and leading mental health awareness in the workplace.
EY (formerly Ernst & Young) launched “r u okay?” in 2016 as a way to increase discussions around mental health in the workplace and to provide more services to employees. Within the first three months, they saw a 30% increase in calls to their mental health assistance line. The program also includes virtual events, peer mentors, follow-up services, and more—and the company hopes to do more in the future. “[This program] allows us to pay such attention to our people’s individual wellbeing by starting the dialog in a safe, non-confrontational way. It can really make a difference for someone in need,” said EY’s Carolyn Slaski.
Virgin “No business has any more excuses not to take action.” That’s Virgin CEO Richard Branson on mental health issues in the workplace, and his actions follow his words. Virgin offers an interactive workshop called MindCoach that gives participants stress coping strategies, and all managers are trained on how to support colleagues in need. Outside of the company, Virgin also extended mental health services to victims of Hurricane Irma 2017.
Having an open, positive environment when it comes to mental health can make a huge difference in employee well-being and happiness, and the best companies are actively providing resources, tools, and services to all workers so they can seek and get the help they need. While there’s still a way to go before the modern workplace reflects the diverse needs of its employees, these employers are taking promising steps in the right direction.
Blend, a San Francisco-based digital-lending software company, pays for its employees’ first appointment with a Kip (a San Francisco-based startup that matches users with therapists for in-person sessions) and covers 75 percent of the next four sessions. Kip operates only in San Francisco
American Express is providing “the next generation of health care for its employees,” according to global corporate medical director Wayne Burton, MD. This means looking at physical health and emotional health holistically, connecting the pieces across a wide spectrum of services, and garnering visible support from senior leaders and line managers. As a result, Burton and his team are decreasing the incidence of medical and behavioral health claims.
For their efforts, American Express was recognized by the American Psychological Association for “outstanding efforts to promote employee well-being and organizational performance” and was awarded the American Psychological Association’s inaugural Organizational Excellence Award in 2015. The national-level recognition is designed to highlight the effective application of psychology in the workplace — whether addressing mental health, applying good behavioral science to safety practices, using learning theory to strengthen training efforts, or a host of other ways in which psychology can promote well-being and performance.
We don’t ask, “are you okay?” enough in the workplace. Let’s change that.
As I have stated before, this is my own unique lived experience as a bipolar person. These are my opinions and my opinions alone. Mental health illness, acceptance, management and struggle is not universal.