Image Source: Garden of the Gods © 2018 Steve Gregos
As a person with a mental health condition, I’ve become hyper-aware of how my condition affects others’ perceptions of me. Even though mental illness has risen to a national conversation, not every workplace has healthy psychological safety practices in place. For many still, having an open dialog about mental illness can open up real personal safety and job security concerns. Even in more advanced workplaces, balancing safety with providing our teams enough information to understand and accommodate so that we can be our most productive can become a daily routine. For a person diagnosed with anxiety, for example, this balancing act and the emotional load it carries can often exacerbate symptoms.
What if we could change that narrative? We know psychological safety in an organization starts with a commitment from leadership, but what kind of commitment?
A Commitment to Action
I was having a discussion with a colleague in the talent development community about leadership showing vulnerability and how it impacts workplace culture. They shared with me a story about their CEO.
Each year he gives a presentation to the company on his experience with depression as a way to create a safe space for discussion around mental health. When leadership models the safety that they wish to build within a team, it can act as an antidote for misinterpretation of what a safe space means. This approach encourages employees to be themselves and it reveals a culture of acceptance at the highest (read: most influential) levels of the organization.
Not Talking About Mental Health Is Bad For Mental Health
To be clear, I am not encouraging anyone to openly ask a co-worker, or anyone for that matter, about their mental health history. I am also not insinuating that everyone should, or needs to, talk about their mental health.
Imagine a woman who has ADHD. She’s tried everything in the book. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, color coordinating, using timers, headphones, medication, working from home, environmental stimuli reduction - nothing helped. She leaves work and heads to her therapy appointment where her therapist tells her that ADHD is nothing to be ashamed of.
But this woman had never heard someone talk about their ADHD openly at work. It’s only been mentioned in one very small group. No one had dared, at this point, bring it up with the team that they work with every day. Statistically speaking, there were likely other peers with ADHD outside of that small group. But if they weren’t ashamed of their condition, why hadn’t there been more discussion around the strengths of ADHD in the workplace?
Let’s go back to what her therapist had told her. What might be stopping someone from discussing their mental health condition - in this case, ADHD - with their team at work? For about 52% of people with the condition, disclosing it results in being fired, passed over for promotion, ridiculed, or ignored without accommodation. Those aren’t statistics that make it easy to start a conversation about the importance of mental health discussions. But they are exactly why mental health discussions are necessary for the workplace.
This begs the question: how do you increase the ambient awareness and knowledge of exclusive triggers under your current company’s roof in a way that’s safe? Starting a dialog on where exclusive triggers exist can be a difficult conversation, whether it’s with a peer, manager, direct report, or the organization at large.
“It’s important to remember our first reaction to difference is almost always a non-inclusive one.” - Ben-Saba Hasan
Imagine someone who suffers from addiction. In an organization that values ownership of identity, employees might hear stories from peers or those in leadership about their journey with addiction. When we examine common conditions like addiction, depression, and anxiety, we might be surprised at what we find when there exists a culture of openness around it. By talking about stories of recovery openly to as wide an audience as possible, it creates an environment where self-betterment is at the forefront of your message, and more people successfully navigate recovery. But why is that the result? For those who are early into their recovery, hearing others talk about their journey with addiction openly will message that they are safe and that they are supported. For those further into recovery, it gives them the opportunity and platform to inspire purpose, hope, and solidarity within the community - something that is equally as critical.
The goal of an organization should be to help reconnect those in recovery to society and to improve the employer-employee relationship.
There Is A Path Forward
So what does it look like when a workplace’s culture is truly accepting of someone who isn’t ashamed of their mental health condition? Enter positive psychology. When someone chooses to view their mental health condition in a positive light, there needs to be encouragement and support at every level of the organization and messaging needs to be clear: your condition is valuable and you are seen.
A friend of mine with bipolar disorder was sharing with me their own experiences. “My team knows that I’m bipolar. It’s my belief that emotion is the center of the human experience. In that light, I view my bipolar disorder as a strength in that I experience a deeper level of humanity. It’s a strength that I’m proud of”. By their team creating a safe enough space to allow the practice of positive psychology, my friend is able to bring their entire self to work each day. This also reinforces a culture of acceptance around the exploration of identity.
To those with a mental health condition, I urge you to continue to do what you need to do to stay safe. To everyone else, I remind you to pause and reflect on how you could approach the discussion of mental health in a way that highlights your values.