Removing Mental Health Stigma In The Workplace

Why does a mental health stigma exist in our workplaces?

I included the tweet at the beginning of the post because it shows the opposite of mental health stigma in the workplace; it shows how our employers should work with – instead of against – mental illness. There’s a grey area between what you share with your coworkers and what you share publicly. Where do you draw the line between private and public? Where do you draw the line between what you keep to yourself and what you share with others?

How does one navigate the uncharted waters of sharing your personal health?

It’s not easy for me to share with others when I’m mentally having a “tough time.” Even before I was diagnosed with clinical depression, it was easier to keep feelings to myself instead of sharing them with others. As difficult as it is for me to read others’ non-verbal communication signs when directed towards me, I rely heavily on others reading my own non-verbal communication when I’m feeling less than perfect.

It’s the lazy-man’s way of asking for help. It also makes it easier to hide your true mental health, as I found out later.

Defining Mental Health Day

I should be clear that I’m not talking about mental health days where you need to take care of extra chores around the house, or you’re “taking a day for yourself.” No, these are not what I’m talking about.

When you can’t get out of bed in the morning, and not because you don’t want to go to work or because it feels so nice in bed. When you can’t get out of bed because there is absolutely no reason why you should get up. Because the world doesn’t exist outside of your head and the bed that’s holding you. Those are “mental health” days. Those are the days when you sleep the entire day even though you’re not tired. The only thing you want to do is sleep. Not eat. Not drink. Not shower. The world is dead to you.

It’s those days where you send the requisite email or text to the boss, “Not feeling well today. Going to take a sick day.” But is it a sick day? A mental health day? But they’re really one and the same.

A sick day is a mental health day. A mental health day is a sick day. To say otherwise does a disservice to everything we’ve learned about depression and mental illness.

Making public your mental health.

I applaud Madalyn for having the courage to email her team about her mental health. It’s an action not many feel they can take for themselves because of the existing mental health stigma. Even I thought to myself, “Why would you email your team about this? I would never tell them this!” My thoughts on Madalyn’s tweet originally circled around my own personal feelings, thinking about how there would never be a reason why I would tell me coworkers about any mental health issues.

I’m still wrestling with that decision today: Should I or should I not?

It’s not as though I don’t have the need to inform my team. Over the last couple of years, I’ve used up all of my sick days, even ending two of the last three years by using vacation days for mental health days. I’m fortunate enough to work for a company that does provide generous leave benefits.

I find it hard to fathom how others at less generous companies would manage any type of mental illness.

Struggling to share.

But as I continued to think about why I struggle to share, the more I realized this is exactly why Madalyn’s email and the resulting media coverage are important. Mental illnesses continue to be relegated to the “lesser” illnesses, those illnesses where you are still expected to show up to work unless you are going to get other people sick (and bring down the world economy.)

Mental illness is not a real illness, in other words.

Is it important, though, to remove the workplace stigma around mental illness? What is important is to remember that everyone’s workplace differs. The experiences I have in my workplace with my coworkers and my leave policies are different from my wife’s, which are different from many others. It’s important to realize and remember this fact because this is the real answer to the question: Is it important to remove the workplace stigma around mental illness?

Yes.

We need to remove the stigma around mental illness in the workplace because of the fact that every workplace is different.

Every boss is different. Every HR policy is different. The implementation of those policies are different. It’s because of these differences that we need to remove our mental health stigma.

Why did this post take me so long to write?

I’ve been working on this post for close to a week, not including my initial thoughts a few months ago when Madalyn’s tweet originally became public. Why did it take so long to write?

I still wrestle with the fact that I have mental illness. I wrestle sharing that information.

Maybe the goal of this post is to really announce, share, my mental illness and remove my own mental health stigma.

While I wanted to write this before this last weekend, it almost takes on more significance after this weekend. It takes on more significance after how I feel like it ruined my family’s Christmas gathering. My wife can work with me, and understand me during “bad days.” But at the same time, even the people who raised you can’t understand nor know how to help in those situations.

If those people closest to you can’t even help you or understand your illness, how can you expect your coworkers or your employer to understand?

Understanding and empathizing.

The simple fact is that no one can truly understand another’s mental illness or lack thereof. The simple fact is that all of us should be empathetic to the problems and illnesses that other people face or encounter on a regular basis. Even if those problems and illnesses arise at the most inopportune times.

We need to remove – or at least, lessen – mental health stigma because not all of us experience mental illness the same way. Some of us will miss work or can’t work – even for long periods of time – while others continue to work each day but aren’t necessarily “present” at work.

We need to remove mental health stigmas because not everyone has the same resources and support systems.

I have generous PTO and health insurance covering my costs, but what about those people who don’t? How do we increase awareness so more companies are empathetic to those with mental health illnesses?

These may be rhetorical questions, but the actions that need to take place because of them are real and exist in the real world. I struggle in the real world. I struggle with the need, desire, to post and share my thoughts on this topic.

But when the end comes, the question remains, would I be happy keeping this illness to myself and suffering alone, or would I be happy in sharing my mental health journey and joining hands with those around me? I would rather help remove mental health stigma instead of letting it fester.

Paternity Leave in 2015

Earlier this year I took 12 weeks’ leave from my company, Toms Shoes, to help my wife, Heather, care for our newborn son, Summit. It’s an experience I wish every new dad could have, but I realize how lucky I am.

First off: I am not a parent. My wife and I do not have children, so we have not experienced what Toms Shoes CEO Blake Mycoskie experienced.

So, from a non-parent, but hopeful future-parent, here goes:

1. Family is Number One.

Growing up, my family was only 4 people: my parents, my sister, and me. As an adult, I happily married into a much larger family – basically, the complete opposite of family dynamics I was used to having. Both families now give me the much needed perspective of how important it is to keep family close to you.

Our puppy, Belle, at less than 3 months.
Our puppy, Belle, at less than 3 months.

In December, we welcomed Belle, a chocolate lab puppy, into our lives. She was only 7 weeks old at the time. Coincidently, my sister-in-law was also on leave with her new daughter. I remember both of us comiserating over our Facebook posts at 3AM. In our household, there were many restless nights, messy kennels, constant puppy barking, and plenty of cuddling. I think that sounds familiar for lots of parents.

But even with all of that love and newness, there was still something missing: time at home to bond and take care of the new puppy. I was very lucky to have an accommodating supervisor who allowed me to telecommute for 2-3 days and adjust my vacation time accordingly. That was a godsend for many reasons:

  • lowered my stress level,
  • exercised puppy,
  • trained the puppy, and
  • got work done at home.

Having a puppy (and now a new puppy again, recently), completely opened my eyes (and my mind/body) to the struggles of being welcoming parenthood to our lives.

Belle, the chocolate lab, waiting at the patio door.
Belle, the chocolate lab, waiting at the patio door.

2. Stay-at-Home-Dad

Why not?

My early professional career centered around women, literally. I worked with the Women’s Volleyball team at University of Northern Iowa. I interned with “To the Contrary,” a PBS program centering on women’s issues. I remember doing a story about stay-at-home dads, and telling my co-workers, “That would be the best job.”

Obviously, as I’ve grown up and seen my nephews and niece be born and grow, I realize there’s more to staying at home than what you see on television; it’s certainly not all roses. However, the impulse for more focus on family and family life continues to be there today.

Many anecdotal stories like that of Mycoskie, along with countless paternity leave studies from companies and Scandinavian countries alike show the incredible benefits paid paternity leave brings to both families and companies. [1][2][3]

Why not provide the opportunity for dads to have the same opportunity as women? Yes, this flips the normal argument, but it does beg the question: Why are men so important that they need to stay at work all the time? By not providing paid paternity leave, society continues to lessen the value of women in the professional world. [4]

Isn’t there more?

I’m certain there is a lot more to the argument for paid parental leave. But alas, I’m not a parent yet, nor am I familiar with the trials and tribulations that millions of new parents face every day. I hope that when I do get to face those obstacles, I can do so with my wife by my side, and with paid paternity leave giving our family the support we deserve.