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Coming Clean About Mental Health at Work

My workplace is understanding about mental health challenges. My recent viral Tweet showing my CEO’s amazing response to my request to take time off for my mental health is just one example of how my workplace supports its employees’ mental health.

But it took a lot of time for me to get to that place.

During the summer of 2014, I wrote this on a depression forum:

“I don’t want my colleagues to think that I don’t like or care about my job. It’s literally perfect. I don’t like how little I’ve been able to accomplish lately. How can I have an honest and frank discussion with my superiors about my mental state and still have them trust me to get things done and value me as an employee?

 

I’m feeling so lost here and this job is seriously the best thing I have in my life. What do I tell them?”

I was looking for reassurance that my superiors would understand and advice about how to start the conversation.

But the overwhelming response I received was:

“Don’t do it. You could get fired.

Yeah. Yikes.

While legally a person can’t be fired for having a mental illness, we’ve all heard horror stories from people working in toxic and unsupportive work environments, which can prevent people from seeking the help they may need. And unaddressed mental illness in the workplace can lead to decreased productivity and engagement, and can negatively impact a company’s bottom line.

So, in a world where one in five American adults has a mental illness, why aren’t supervisors doing more to promote mental wellness in the workplace?

I’ve lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember. It started as a child. In high school, I began experiencing debilitating panic attacks, and in college I developed depression. Though I was on medication and attending therapy once a week, I still struggled to make it to graduation.

Despite these struggles, I managed to land my dream job as a developer at a tech company, Olark, just after graduation. I excelled during the first six months at my new job. Things fell into place. I had renewed hope. I was living the life I had been dreaming of during those dark college days.

And then my medication stopped working.

I was quickly thrown back into a major depressive episode. I worked from home more and more. I got out of bed later and later, until I pretty much never left it. I began experiencing nearly constant suicidal thoughts.

At work, my performance was suffering. It took me much longer to accomplish things. My to-do list seemed impossibly long. The anxieties would build up until I was paralyzed by all of my potential failures. I wanted to reach out for help, but stigma and the added pressure of being one of the few women in a male-dominated tech company held me back.

It was only after a lot of talk therapy and medication adjustments that I finally came clean about my mental health to one of Olark’s co-founders, Matt. And I am so glad I did.

It turned out I wasn’t the only person at Olark experiencing mental health challenges. My talk with Matt spurred an open conversation across the organization about mental and emotional obstacles at work. Matt also did some work on Olark’s policies on medical leave to explicitly include mental and emotional challenges.

Now, I don’t feel guilty about taking a mental health day. I can be proactive about my mental health at work and I feel understood and supported by my colleagues.

I know that my experience is more the exception than the rule. But there are tons of things that employers can do to successfully manage mental health in the workplace, including:

  • Offer flexibility. Productivity isn’t attained in a one-size-fits-all environment.
  • Nurture your culture. At Olark, our internal culture fosters a supportive, empathetic and empowering atmosphere.
  • Focus on people. Your employees are your most valuable asset. Your mission and your culture should reflect that.
  • Train your staff. Training programs like Mental Health First Aid at Work can greatly increase understanding and supportive behaviors about mental illness in the workplace.

If you make your organization a safe space for people to grow and flourish, you’ll be rewarded in the long run. My work is better now that I can bring my whole self to work and I don’t have to hide my illness. At the end of the day, good health is good business, and good health includes mental health.

Madalyn Parker is a web developer, music enthusiast, rabbit owner, knitter, cross-stitcher, mental health advocate and "empathy engineer" at Olark. Follow her on Twitter: @madalynrose