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Leaders Blaze Trails with Their Mental Health Stories

Executives sharing their struggles improves employee health

Key points

  • One in five people experience a mental health condition in the course of their lifetime.
  • Workplace leaders can support employee mental health by sharing their own struggles.
  • Although disclosing mental health issues has potential repercussions for leaders, some feel it's worth the risk.
  • A culture of mental health starts at the top of organizations.
Jason Goodman/Unsplash
Source: Jason Goodman/Unsplash

In these trying times, leaders are looking for strategies to help support the mental health of their teams and workplace staff who might be in distress.

At least one in five of us will experience a mental health condition over the course of our lifetime. The other four people are indirectly affected by it. That means you know a colleague, have a friend, support a partner or adult child, or you yourself have a mental illness. It’s in every organization, at every level, whether we’re talking about it or not.

How can workplace leaders help? They can do what they do best: Lead. Lead by example, by being a role model for mental health, and taking responsibility for their mental health.

What happens when leaders speak up about their mental health struggles?

Leaders need to model self-care, talk about mental health with empathy and without judgment, and make it personal. The most powerful tool we have is our own experience. When leaders share their passion for mental health and disclose their own mental health struggles, it shapes the corporate culture. It says, "I am walking the talk, not merely parroting what 'comms' has told me to say. I’m putting skin in the game,not merely saying what I believe should be said."

Is it risky to self-disclose? Of course. Is it effective? Yes. An executive who shares their hard-won wisdom of their journey with mental health issues creates safety for others to share.

Jason Saltzman, CEO and founder of co-working community Alley, has been extremely open about his experience with generalized anxiety disorder. His disclosure went viral. In an interview with TalkSpace1, he discussed the positive feedback he got when he did disclose.

“The response that I got out of it was amazing. Marc Andreessen [entrepreneur, investor, and software engineer], retweeted it, and it got thousands and thousands of views. I was flooded with emails.”1 This shows how powerful it is when leaders share their struggles, how it can dismantle the fears of talking about it and getting help.

But Saltzman is realistic about potential repercussions: “If you’re an investor looking at deals all day long and you meet two people of equal execution but find out that one of them has some type of mental ailment, such as general anxiety disorder, you’re going to choose the person who doesn’t have any issues, who won’t cause drama (unless you have a very empathetic investor; but let’s be frank: It’s a dog-eat-dog capitalistic world we live in).”1

But he finds that sharing his story is worth the risk: “The deeper you bury it, you’re not just doing an injustice to yourself you’re doing injustice to those around you. That’s why I’m so motivated to speak openly about it. [Mental illness] is not a weakness, it’s a human condition.”1

Robert Gill, HR consultant at Square, helped make it safer for others to talk about their mental health issues. In a Forbes interview he reported that opening up about his challenges “really changed the dialogue. People were no longer scared thinking 'Is he going to believe me?’”2

Panelists at a 2019 Mindshare Partners Mental Health at Work conference discussed how speaking up first about their own struggles with mental illness has moved the needle in their organizations. They “unanimously agreed that leaders must go first to change the culture of mental health at work for employees, teams, and companies as a whole.”2

Culture changes when leaders do.

Lloyd Craig, former CEO of Coast Capital Savings, Canada’s second largest credit union, has been a pioneer in discussing mental health in the workplace.

From early on, before anyone in the corporate world was discussing mental illness, in 2001, he was open about the loss of his son by suicide. He dedicated himself to changing workplace culture—within his company and beyond. He was part of the pioneering British Columbia Economic Roundtable on Mental Health in Canada.

In an interview, he explains that “you need intelligent, thoughtful people running the business to create a culture of psychological health from the top down. The hardest thing you can do in business is change the culture.”3 But as he states: “Culture beats strategy every time. You have bad culture and a great strategy, and I have a great culture and a mediocre strategy, I’ll beat you every time.”3

If all executive team members took the leap and took the lead by being transparent about personal mental health experiences, corporate cultures around North America would shift. The shame, fear, and stigma that accompany the label of mental illness would dissipate. Employees would feel safer and could reach out for help and reach for help sooner. Not only would top and bottom lines be improved but so would countless lives.

If you’re a leader reading this, take this under consideration and help move the mental health needle by sharing.

© Victoria Maxwell

References

1. We Need More Workplace Leaders Talking About Their Own Mental Health: Celebrity Stories Aren’t Enough. Interview by Mind Share Partners. Forbes, 23 Dec. 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/mindsharepartners/209/12/23/we-need-more-w…. Accessed 27 Nov. 2021.

2. Breaking C-Suite Stigma: Our Interview with Jason Saltzman, CEO of Alley. Interview by Talkspace. Talkspace, 12 Feb. 2019, https://www.talkspace.com/blog/interview-jason-saltzman-ceo-alley-menta…. Accessed 27 Nov, 2021.

3. Companies open minds to mental health disabilities. By Gerry Bellett. Vancouver Sun, 02 May 2013, https://vancouversun.com/health/mental%20health/companies-open-minds-to…. Accessed 27 Nov, 2021.

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