The spiral started with several fitful nights of sleep. By midmorning, Naomi was yawing in her cubicle; no caffeine was strong enough to assuage the desire to crawl under a comforter and drift into a dreamscape. Within a few weeks, Naomi’s coworkers noticed the weight loss. At first, they told her affirming missives like “Getting ready for summer, aren’t you?” and “You’re looking terrific these days.” A few weeks later, the affirmation gave way to concern. Too much weight. Too fast. A once precise features writer, Naomi’s copy was on the decline; her editor sent most drafts back these days with instructions to correct the errors and write with clarity. Naomi’s home life also became a mess, including fights with her partner and emotional absence in the kids’ lives—an unquenchable desire to walk away from it all and live as a hermit in a faraway place. Naomi didn’t have a formal label for her angst yet, but she knew she was in trouble. 

Mental Health is a Workplace Issue

The National Alliance on Mental Illness – NAMI – reports that 1 in 5 Americans experience mental Illness annually, with 1 in 20 suffering a major mental illness episode in a given year. Less than half receive treatment. Unchecked mental Illness correlates with a higher unemployment rate, greater incidence of cardiovascular disease, and high potential of engaging in addictive behavior. Mental Illness can profoundly impact intimate partners, families, and workplaces. Regarding the latter, the Center for Disease Control – CDC – notes that mental Illness can hamper “Job performance and productivity; Engagement with one’s work; Communication with coworkers; and Physical capability and daily functioning.” Bottom line? Those of us who lead businesses and nonprofits are “on the hook” to promote awareness of mental health issues in the workplace and support employees assessing or managing mental Illness.

CDC literature asserts, “The workplace is an optimal setting to create a culture of health.” Begin with this statement as you assess your setting’s capacity to nurture awareness and support employees (and families). Mental health assessments and screenings should be accessible and free for all employees regardless of position or work schedule. These personal tools can move the Naomis from a posture of concern about health to action. Affordable or accessible seminars, continuing education offerings, and informative literature can open the door to insight and proactive next steps. Robust insurance offerings, including behavioral health coverage and the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), give your employees the tools they need to thrive while communicating to all stakeholders, “We care about you and your health.”

Empathetic, Authentic, and Vulnerable Leadership Needed

Let’s get a little more organic. How many of you offer your employees meditation, massage, and yoga as a hedge against stress and anxiety? What about a fitness center or “wellness dollars” so your people can get a fitness membership? Some proactive organizations provide mindfulness seminars, wellness apps, and wellness coaches that require minimal employee financial outlay. At my company, Accenture, our Chief Health Officer, Dr. Tam Brownlee, and Arianna Huffington of Thrive Global announced a partnership to create Nourish to Thrive. This cognitive nutrition program connects what we eat and every aspect of our well-being.

That said, programs and tools alone will never move the needle toward wellness for Naomi and the billions of people who encounter mental health challenges in a typical year. All businesses and organizations need a shift toward empathy in an era of unbridled mental health stressors. Having heart is much more than patting someone on the back and delivering a throwaway line like “It’ll be okay.” Empathy requires deep connection, a genuine willingness to understand the “other’s” context, motivation, and vision for life. Forbes contributor and entrepreneurship coach Caroline Castrillon suggests empathy circles may be an excellent place to begin. Castrillon notes, “The purpose of an empathy circle isn’t to focus on a specific outcome but to facilitate conversations that open up the possibility for growth and change.” Could we not cultivate something like the empathy circle in our work settings, intentionality built around safe, honest, and supportive workplace connections? Sometimes knowing that it’s okay to name your pain in the work setting – permission to be authentic and vulnerable– alleviates a little of the anxiety and underscores the presence of support.

Leaders must always model the behaviors they seek from the team members. While leaders don’t need to be innately empathetic to help their employees navigate mental health challenges, they must cultivate an environment of openness, support, and wellness in the office. This means authenticity. Leaders should speak openly about their own experience of mental illness or provide care for a loved one experiencing mental illness. Openness from leadership allows the team to speak honestly about their own mental health stories and their quests for wellness. Leaders also take the hits and grow when they learn that their interaction with “Naomi” and others working through mental illness has been less than supportive. Listen to the critiques, plan for remediation, and be the kind of boss who sees the employee as a whole person, not just a cog in the machine.

 David Brooks’ recent Opinion piece in the New York Times, “How Do You Serve a Friend in Despair,” brought it all home for me, and while he was writing about a friend, should it be different at work? He wrote, “I learned, very gradually, that a friend’s job in these circumstances is not to cheer the person up. It’s to acknowledge the reality of the situation; it’s to hear, respect, and love the person; it’s to show that you haven’t given up on them, that you haven’t walked away.” Brooks shares a few essential tips:

  • “Don’t advise on what to do or remind them about all the beautiful things in their lives; listen to them, acknowledge their experience, and let them know you’re here for them.”
  • “If you see, read, or hear something that would help validate their experience, share it; while it may not help them heal, they will know you see them.”
  • “Experts say that it’s okay to speak to someone about suicide if you know they are experiencing a deep, clinical depression; you can’t put the idea in their head, but you can perhaps help them get help.”
Skip to content