Broken Bone vs. Broken Heart
As we continue to process the tragic loss of two incredible talents, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I am concerned about how we deal with mental illness in our places of work. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 18.5% of adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year. Furthermore, 13% of children between the ages of 8 and 15 experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life.
Nearly one in five people are dealing with a serious illness, yet we seldom speak of it at work. Mental illness is common, and there are some excellent resources available. But still, there remains a cloud of shame and stigma that limits our effectiveness in connecting people with help.
As I reflect on my work as an HR professional, I consider the sharp contrast between the way we support a colleague with a broken bone, versus one with a broken heart:
- The broken bone – If a colleague had two broken wrists, their casts would be our visual cue that they are in pain. We would likely talk about their incident, perhaps a cycling accident or a clumsy mishap. Their challenge would not be a secret. We would not expect them to type up our team’s meeting notes on their laptop. We would make some accommodations until they heal. It would be evident that they received medical attention, and we may have shared resources or recommendations about an in-network orthopedist. Their healing would be visible. Eventually, their casts would be removed, and perhaps we would celebrate as they regain their full strength.
Despite our comfort addressing a colleague’s broken bones, we still dance around “invisible” challenges, like mental illness. Try to imagine a parallel situation, but this time a co-worker is dealing with acute anxiety related to a loved one’s recent suicide attempt. Because of our discomfort with mental illness, and also the need for privacy, this colleague is unlikely to receive the same level of support.
- The broken heart – They arrive at work disheveled due to a “family emergency.” They are in pain. We go about our work, occasionally sharing a sympathetic smile to acknowledge their “stress.” Their challenge would remain a secret. We expect our affected co-worker to lead the morning’s client presentation at full capacity and we express disappointment about their lackluster performance. We missed an opportunity to make accommodations to promote healing. The day’s schedule is too hectic for him to make his therapy appointment with an in-network social worker, missing out on a valuable company sponsored resources. Eventually, our colleague has to take an unplanned “leave of absence” due to “burn out” and we wonder what happened to the talents and ambitions of one of our strongest team members.
I am hopeful that forward-thinking organizations can create a bridge between those who suffer and the critical resources to help them, and it can be done in a way that offers discretion without shame. An employee’s emotional trauma does not need to be as public as a broken bone for us to do more to promote their healing and help them regain their strength as a professional.
As we work with our clients to bolster their cultures and resources related to mental illness, I wanted to share some themes and ideas that can be implemented in any organization.
Uncovering the clues – training leaders on how to listen
As always, our leaders and managers are our first line of defense in dealing with employees who might be struggling. Despite the prevalence, most leaders have little to no training on how to recognize or deal with signs of mental illness. Leaders should first be trained on what to look for – changes in work quality or demeanor, missed meetings or deadlines, or more frequent absences. Sometimes the signs are more subtle. Using words that are just shy of stigma such as “stress”, “overwhelmed”, “a lot going on” are signs of a more subtle distress signal.
Creating an honest plan – training leaders on what to do
While we can’t expect our leaders and managers to be part-time therapists, an effective conversation can create the bridge between a struggling employee and available resources. Unlike more tactical conversations that revolve around work, this conversation should be focused on the employee’s well being. “I noticed you have a lot going on lately…. it happens to all of us…. we really value your contribution…we would rather create a plan to help you rebalance things temporarily until things settle down for you…. we have a lot of resources available…. let’s make the following changes, we can keep it confidential”. Coming out of these conversations, I recommend the creation of a “healing plan”, an honest agreement between leader and employee that addresses the illness, similar to the broken bones, but with the right level of discretion and sensitivity.
Removing the shame – promoting wellness staples for all
So much of what helps people overcome an episode of mental illness is what keeps everyone well – walking, yoga, eating well, mindfulness sessions, support groups. Some companies have done a great job of making these critical interventions mainstream by encouraging all employees to take advantage of them. When companies encourage participation in these programs, they are not only taking the stigma out of “taking care of ourselves”, but mental illness at the same time. Taking advantage of these wellness staples, coupled with more individualized interventions through your EAP, can be a core component of an employee’s “healing plan”.
Going public – using shared experience to reduce the stigma
Despite the importance of maintaining privacy, we have seen the powerful impact of those who choose to go public with their mental health challenges to inspire and support others. According to Barbara Ricci, founder of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “there are typically two types of people who will disclose, despite the fear of prejudice or discrimination at work. The first group is those who want to bring their whole selves to work and don’t want to hide. The second group includes leaders, either in title or in practice, who understand that openly acknowledging their diagnosis can shed a positive light on what it means to work with someone with a mental, or invisible, disability.” I encourage HR groups to identify these individuals and support their voice in your organizations.
With recent heightened awareness, I am hopeful that progressive organizations can emerge from the culture of secrecy that had us whispering things like “depression”, “drug addiction” or, “suicide”. The benefit of our more open society is that we can begin to have frank conversations about solutions that enhance inclusion and productivity among our employee base. We see it in the entertainment space with powerful songs like Logic’s 1-800-273-8255. We see it in our school systems with numerous suicide prevention programs. I believe the HR community can play a big role in changing the dialogue at work. With the right mindset, we can make it possible for people to rebound from a broken heart like they would from a broken bone. To learn more about how Inspire works with clients to create honest and supportive cultures, contact me at [email protected] or (917) 612-8571.