4 Things to Know About Mental Health at Work

 

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek November 12, 2019
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​Kelly Greenwood graduated summa cum laude from Duke University with degrees in psychology and Spanish. She holds a master's degree in business from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, contributes to Forbes magazine and is editor-at-large for Mental Health at Work, a blog on Thrive Global.

She also is someone who has managed generalized anxiety disorder since she was a young girl. It twice led to debilitating depression. During a Smart Stage presentation at the recent Society for Human Resource Management Inclusion 2019 event in New Orleans, she discussed how someone can be a high-performing individual and still contend with mental health issues.

Greenwood had to take a leave of absence after experiencing a perfect storm at work—a new job in an understaffed, dysfunctional environment; an inflexible schedule that caused her to miss therapy sessions; and a change in her medication. When it became clear her performance had deteriorated, she was forced to disclose her condition to her manager.

She took a three-month leave, but that only fueled her anxiety. Still in her 30s, she worried about whether she would be able to return to work and feared her career was over. It wasn't. She went on to join the executive team of a nonprofit and in 2017 founded Mind Share Partners, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that offers corporate training and advising on mental health.

[See "Tips to Support Employees Returning from Mental Health Leave"]

Greenwood shared the following four things she wishes she had known earlier in her life about mental health:

  1. Mental health is a spectrum. "Hardly anybody is 100 percent mentally healthy" all the time, she said. "We all go back and forth on this spectrum throughout the rest of our lives." The grief a person experiences over the loss of a loved one, for example, affects that person's mental health. "You can be successful and have a mental health condition," Greenwood said, noting that a study Mind Share Partner conducted with Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that mental health symptoms are equally prevalent across seniority levels within companies, all the way up to the C-suite.

  2. You cannot tell a person's mental condition by his or her behavior. "It's never your job," she told managers and other workplace leaders, "to diagnose or gather [information] or assume what's going on. Our goal at work is not to be clinicians, but to create a supportive environment."

  3. Mental health conditions and symptoms, including suicidal thoughts, are common. Greenwood said the Mind Share Partners/HBR study found that 60 percent of 1,500 people surveyed online in March and April said they had a mental health symptom: feeling anxious, sad or numb or experiencing a loss of interest or pleasure in most activities for at least two weeks. National Institutes of Health research suggests that up to 80 percent of people will manage a diagnosable mental health condition in their lifetime. "They may not know it," Greenwood said. "It may be a moment in time because of a job loss or grief over a death. That means mental health affects every conference call, every team meeting. It is the next frontier of diversity and inclusion."

  4. Workplace culture can reinforce the stigma around mental health issues. And so, 80 percent of workers will not seek help because of the associated shame and stigma. If they do, they cite a different reason, such as a headache or upset stomach, rather than admit they are taking time off because of stress. That is leading to what Greenwood calls a "huge retention issue," with 50 percent of Millennials and 75 percent of Generation Z saying they left a job—voluntarily and involuntarily—because of a mental health challenge. She advised leaders to have "courageous conversations" with those they work with. Even simply engaging in a discussion about having to deal with a child's tantrum can be powerful.

    "There is so much research," she said, "about the power of vulnerability in leadership."  


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