It’s Okay to not be Okay…At Work
Updated: Jul 21
My first panic attack in the workplace came while I was teaching a class of high school students the ins and outs of how standardized test scores fit into their college application process.
Now, when I say panic attack, I mean the type that is clinically defined by the Mayo Clinic as a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. This was SCARY. As a young teacher, I was mediocre at managing a classroom when on the top of my game, much less when my brain and body had decided to feel as though a bear was in my classroom, rearing up to attack. At the time, I didn’t know this would mark the beginning of my road to being diagnosed with panic disorder, which is when you have repeated, random, attacks and live in constant fear of another attack. It was also the beginning of missed days at work, a feeling of isolation from my colleagues, eventual additional diagnoses of major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder and, surprise, a precipitous drop in my productivity. During one my most fear filled and dejected days I vowed to one day create a workplace where people like me could thrive.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and if people weren’t previously aware we hadn’t addressed our mental health as individuals and a nation before 2020, well, let’s just say we were in for a wakeup call. According to research performed by Shine, a company with the mission of supporting mental health with daily, culturally competent care, 85% of respondents have said they’ve experienced their wellbeing decline during the pandemic. McKinsey has reported that 62% of workers cite mental health issues as a current challenge in the workplace. For minority and marginalized groups, these numbers are even higher, making mental health awareness a critical, but often missed, part of effective DEI work. For example, did you know that in the U.S.….
· Only 1 in 3 Black adults who need mental health care will receive it?
· As of 2015, 5% of psychologists were Asian, 5% Hispanic, 4% Black, and 1% multiracial?
· Lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults are 2x more likely to have a mental health condition as heterosexual adults and that this number doubles to 4x for transgender individuals when compared to cisgender individuals?
With so many of us struggling with our mental health, it’s no surprise our workplaces also suffer as a result. The WHO estimates that depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy nearly $1 trillion (with a T) per year in lost productivity. As leaders in our communities and organizations, it is no longer optional to care about the mental health of our colleagues. It’s time we bring mental health care into our conversations in the workplace.
Which brings us back to that promise I made to myself thirteen years ago, on that dark day in 2009. I’ve co-founded a non-profit, hired a team of employees, and found ways to thrive in the face of the panic, the depression, and the obsessions. I still have ups and downs and by no means think I’ve figured it all out, but I’ve found what works for me. While I have no illusions that my experience is that of anyone else’s, I can say I’ve found the following strategies effective in supporting myself and my teams take good care:
· Let your team continue to work virtually after the Pandemic, at least part of the time, if your line of work allows it. Yes, even if it’s true the most introverted amongst us (#me) are excited to see their colleagues again, any organization kidding themselves that going back to the office 100% of the time is good for their team or their talent recruiting pipeline is preparing for failure. Working from home allows me to manage my anxiety, quiet my obsessions, and take better care of my mind. Bonus feature: we are more productive at home.
· Give your team unlimited PTO. If that sounds too radical, give them unlimited time off for health care appointments. By making employees take time off for therapy and mental health related care appointments, we are making our teams choose how much to care for themselves. If you are concerned someone on your team will abuse this privilege, chances are the problem isn’t the time off policy.
· Lead by example, but don’t think you have to have personal experience with mental health struggles to effectively care for your team. Our team shares our Google Calendars and I purposefully leave my therapy and care appointments viewable to my team. My appointments are mostly during the workday, as that’s when my providers are available and I’ve found that I will maintain my care if I don’t have to do everything after five. Tell your team that their mental health is important to you and share with them how you are taking steps to care for yourself. This can feel daunting, so it can be helpful to unveil a new policy or benefit for your team as an intro to the topic. If you’ve never experienced mental health challenges, that’s okay! We all need self-care and seeing leaders take care will signal to employees this not a “do as I say, not as I do” situation.
· Speaking of listening, start every 1:1 with time to ask, “How are you?” My boss and co-founder asks this every time he meets with me and I know I have that time to share how I’m doing and what I need to thrive that week. Usually, mental health doesn’t enter into my answer, but knowing that I can bring it up if I’m having a tough time is invaluable. On that note, if I miss the mark on a project or metric he doesn’t assume it’s due to depression or anxiety.
· It’s okay if there are people who don’t want to talk about this topic with you. It’s not a failure of your efforts or a sign they are secretive. We all have reasons we may or may not want to discuss such significant topics with our bosses and teammates and all of those reasons are valid. If I’m being honest, coming out as having mental illness is scarier for me at this point than coming out as LGBT. If you create the space and consistently signal mental health is a priority, your team will notice and it will matter.
We spend most of our waking lives at our jobs and it’s important now more than ever we feel as cared for as possible on our teams. If we are to create resilient, psychologically safe, world bettering teams, it all starts with taking care of ourselves. As a manager and leader, what better time than the first Mental Health Awareness Month following a Pandemic to start this conversation with your team?
Kristen is the cofounder of Persist Nashville and has spent her entire career committed to improving K-16 education. After teaching for two years with Teach for America and earning her M.Ed., Kristen transitioned into working with college students at InsideTrack. Prior to co-founding Persist Nashville, Ms. King worked as the Associate Director of College Access and Persistence at RePublic High School. She currently serves on the Board of College Ready Now.