by Arlene S. Hirsch
In many workplaces, there is still a stigma around discussing employee mental health conditions. Yet the pandemic has created an unexpected opportunity for more open and supportive conversations between HR, employees, and senior leadership.
Michelle Tenzyk discovered that her willingness to speak openly about what it’s like to be a high achiever living and working with severe depression has helped others to see her as a resource and to speak openly about their own experience.
“The pandemic has exacerbated mental health challenges, even for people who were on solid footing before,” said Tenzyk, founder and CEO of East Tenth Group, a New York-based leadership and executive coaching firm, and board member of The Stability Network, an organization of people sharing their lived experience with mental health conditions. “Opening up about my lived experience gave permission to others to open up as well.
“When leaders are willing to come forward and speak openly about their experience, it really helps bring down the walls,” Tenzyk added.
At Influence & Co., a content marketing firm in Columbia, Mo., CEO Kelsey Raymond has been open with colleagues about seeing a therapist.
“I think this has helped break down any stigma that may have been present around talking about mental health,” she explained. “So, if you have a personal experience that you’re willing to speak openly about, that vulnerability can be really powerful to your team.”
Workplace mental health includes leaders advocating resources and a healthy culture, as well as managers proactively creating a safe, supportive, and sustainable environment, said Bernie Wong, manager of research and design at Mind Share Partners, a San Francisco nonprofit specializing in mental health training.
“When thinking about a broader mental health strategy, we encourage organizations to think comprehensively about how mental health shows up and can be supported throughout the organization,” Wong said.
At Influence & Co., the firm shares its written mental health philosophy with all employees. “I thought that if we created a documented mental health policy for our team members, it could be a way to open up the conversation and show them the support they deserve to receive from their employer,” Raymond said.
The process was led by HR director Courtney Mudd, who consulted with mental health experts, benefits specialists, lawyers, and senior leaders to guide her through the process. Major elements include:
- Acknowledgment. “The first goal of our policy was simply to let the team know that it is OK to disclose a mental illness at work (or not disclose) and to ask for help,” Raymond said.
- Offerings. An explanation of benefits ensures that employees know what resources are available to them.
- Accommodations. The policy also details how employees can ask for reasonable accommodations for a mental health condition and explains that their information will be kept confidential.
During the pandemic, the team tweaked the policy to address the unique challenges that many employees were facing, said Raymond. This included a clarification of each team member’s role; reminders to take paid time off for mental health; and the addition of voluntary virtual mental health workshops, virtual yoga classes and extended summer hours.
“It’s been a positive impact on our company culture because it’s just one more thing that shows our team members that we care about them as whole people. It’s also helped make discussion around mental health more standard in the workplace,” Raymond said.