Why leaders must destigmatise mental illness in the workplace

In the past year, we’ve seen many high-profile people take their own lives due to their struggles with depression – Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, TVNZ news reporter Greg Boyed – it’s a list that sits uncomfortably on anyone’s lips.

News of these deaths have sparked conversations about mental health in the media, at home and in workplaces across the country.  As it is Mental Health Awareness Week in New Zealand (8-14 October), it’s timely to talk about how leaders must play a role in destigmatising mental illness in the workplace.

Our organisations, for the most part, are ill-equipped to deal with issues of mental health.  Leaders can make a big difference - just by starting a conversation.

One in six New Zealanders will be diagnosed with a form of mental illness at some point in their lives. The latest ground-breaking research published in Scientific American indicates you are more likely to experience a bout of mental illness in your life than you are to acquire diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.

It seems mental illness touches all of us.

Given many of us spend a large portion of our days at work, it’s no surprise that our work environment plays a significant role in our mental health. Studies show that companies who are committed to their employees’ psychological well-being and creating a positive working environment are more economically healthy. Caring more makes better business sense.

As an executive and leadership coach, I’ve met many leaders throughout my career who have experienced some form of mental illness - anxiety, depression or something even more stigma laden. I have a front row seat to how these top performing people face a double struggle - the struggle with the illness, coupled with the additional struggle of shame. For many, admitting that they are suffering at work is terrifying.

I am one of them.

I find it quite uncomfortable talking about my experiences with depression, and I’m sure many others can relate. However, last year I wrote a personal blog on The Leader’s Digest about how I had been going through a depressive period. The reaction to that blog was overwhelming, and I saw how it struck a chord with so many people - from senior executives to employees on the front line alike.  Blogging about my own story taught me how important it is to talk openly about mental health – it is a fundamental step in destigmatising mental illness in the workplace.

As a leader you cannot ignore this. You must step up – even if you find it uncomfortable.  Here are some ways you can get started:

  1. Start the conversation: Open the door and make it safe for people to talk about these issues openly and honestly. Ideally, this openness is modelled at the top table. In one instance, I saw the profoundly humanising effect on a company’s culture when the CEO was open about his experience of depression. Ironically, he became stronger, not weaker, in the eyes of his employees. By sharing his own experience, it created safety for others in the company who were suffering from mental illness to do the same.
  2. Examine the culture you are creating: Do your employees feel safe? Do they feel valued? Are you creating an atmosphere of trust? If organisations foster cultures of trust, people are more productive and are more engaged. Additionally, programmes and policies that promote wellness (flexible working arrangements, help with child and elder care, financial literacy, diversity programmes) play a significant role in someone’s wellbeing at work.
  3. Be compassionate and seek to understand: Examine your own mental models and unconscious biases around mental illness. Commit to educating yourself on this important topic. Focus on listening without judgement. Kindness and high performance in the workplace are not mutually exclusive.
  4. Provide access to support: This is crucial. Provide access to names, websites and phone numbers of organisations who can help. You could even include these in your staff benefits so that employees know they can access support when they need it.
  5. Ensure appropriate sensitivities around disclosure and information sharing: As a leader you must maintain confidentially and privacy in line with an employee’s wishes and legal requirements.

This week is a great opportunity to look at your practices that support mental wellbeing. Be a leader who helps conversations around mental health in the workplace begin to spread. By doing so, you’ll help destigmatize mental illness in the workplace.

Getting help

Getting help is an important part of managing depression.

Talk to someone:

  • a friend or a family member
  • free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
  • your GP, who can advise on the best treatment options for you
  • a member of your local community mental health team (contact them through your local district health board).

Get in touch with counselling services:

  • a school guidance counsellor
  • iwi and other Māori health counselling services
  • alcohol and drug services
  • family support services.

Phone a helpline:

  • Need to talk? (1737, free text or call)
  • the Depression Helpline (0800 111 757)
  • Lifeline (0800 543 354)

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