Reframing Mental Health Challenges in the Workplace

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During last month’s Diversity & Economic Inclusion Summit hosted by the Greenville Chamber, I had the opportunity to hear from Natasha Bowman during a breakout session entitled: “Breaking Barriers, Building Resilience: Redefining Workplace Mental Health with DEI Principles.”

It was both galvanizing and frustrating to learn about Natasha’s personal journey and I found myself inspired by her bold decision to become a “Mental Health Warrior.” As such, we felt moved to share it with all of you.

Like so many of us, COVID turned Natasha’s life upside-down. As a facilitator and speaker, her contracts were cancelled, and her jet-setting career came to a crashing halt. Because so much of her identity had been tied up in her work, she found herself searching for identity.

She lost her way, gave a large sum of money to a stranger on the internet, and ended up feeling shame when she finally “snapped out of it.” She continued to spiral downward and attempted to commit suicide.

As she was recovering from this attempt, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While this explained a great deal about her sometimes manic behaviors and the dark times she experienced, Natasha wondered how this would impact her career. She found herself putting the incorrect stigmas related to mental health conditions on herself, until research informed her that significant people in history had similar battles. One of them was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who was a two-time suicide survivor.

In the days that followed, Natasha decided she was going to change the way mental health was talked about amongst business colleagues and within organizations. Her first move as a “Mental Health Warrior” was announcing publicly to her large network on LinkedIn that she was bipolar.

While she had an overwhelmingly positive response, she had an equal number of people who said they wished they could share their own mental health challenges or diagnoses in their places of work. So many people continue to hide their “full selves” for fear of stigmatization. They do not want to be labeled.

The stigma that comes with having a mental illness or other mental health conditions is significant. Below are shared common misconceptions about people with mental health conditions:

  • They are violent.
  • They are dangerous.
  • They are moody.
  • They are unreliable.
  • They have poor time & attendance.
  • They are emotional.
  • They are inconsistent.
  • They need to be micromanaged.
  • They are limited in the types of work they can do.

One thing I learned about stereotypes from a professor in college is this: that they are always true, and they are always false. What this means is that while there is a reason certain stereotypes exist, they are never correct and should never be assumed — because every individual is their own, unique person.

For Natasha, her mental health condition didn’t cause her to be unreliable, it caused her to be overly productive — working at all hours of the night, on multiple projects, and always delivering as promised.

So, what can each of us do to help reframe the way that we deal with mental health in the workplace?

First, we can start with ourselves, and then we can have conversations with our company leaders and managers.

Make sure you are using person-centered language. Instead of calling someone an “addict,” refer to them as “a person with an addiction.” Instead of calling someone “disabled” remember they are “a person who has a disability.”

You can also foster a culture of acceptance that supports the intersectionality of humanity. How people are treated at work has a much bigger impact on them than what happens at home. We need to especially put on this lens when thinking about how we are treating individuals from marginalized communities.

Next, we can actively work to prevent burnout, protect our employees, and promote mental health amongst our team members.

While many of us strive for work-life balance, it’s time for us to accept that there will never be true balance in all areas of our lives. Instead of reaching for something that is simply unattainable, instead focus on work-life harmony — bringing the beautiful parts of our personal lives and professional lives and blending them together.

You can do this by allowing your employees and team members to bring their full selves to work. Accept them for who they are as a WHOLE person, not just the part of them that handles a certain set of tasks.

You can also do this by finding ways to support their mental health in the workplace. It’s all about empathy. And while sometimes it can be hard to walk in someone else’s shoes, try considering how you’d want YOUR loved ones to be treated if they were struggling with a mental health issue — far away from you — and they went to their boss for help. You’d hope they wouldn’t turn a cold shoulder and refer them to HR, but rather that they’d lean in, offer support, then follow up.

Finally, think about your office and ask: “Who needs your support?”

Maybe it’s someone in your office whose symptoms don’t fit the stigmas we’ve all been taught. Check in with your employees, pay attention to their habits, and don’t be afraid to ask how things are going — they might just confide in you at a time of significant need.

Maybe that person is YOU. Maybe you’re on the verge of burnout and you need to take a minute to put YOURSELF on your daily to do list.

Regardless of the “who”, encourage behaviors companywide that to support both physical and mental hygiene. What are things you can do DAILY to keep your whole self healthy?

In closing, I’ll share a quote Natasha shared at the end of her session. She said: “One day, I hope I’m not considered brave or courageous for just being me.” I hope so too.

If you are looking to find ways to foster a culture that celebrates diversity, is inclusive, and focuses on the collective physical and mental health of your employees — we can help. Give us a call today and let’s begin.


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