We often don’t talk about mental health in our workplaces. But the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one in five adult Americans has a diagnosed mental health challenge in any given year. That’s 20% of the population.

Recently a colleague shared with me her moving journey of developing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), in high school. I learned that it was never as simple as needing to straighten a messy desk. Before doctors diagnosed her, she developed a number of debilitating phobias—becoming afraid of everything from the food she ate to the clothes she wore to the computers, calculator, and pencils she needed to use for school.

She got the medical help she needed, completed her education, and eventually made her way to a great career. She kept her diagnosis from her colleagues for years, only sharing it with Human Resources when her managers assigned her a role with responsibilities that would likely trigger her symptoms.

Fortunately, HR made sure she found a more suitable assignment. And much to her surprise, they did it without notifying her managers about why she needed the change. She’d been so concerned about sharing her illness that she forgot about privacy laws designed to shield people in her situation.

Others learned about her OCD when she was profiled at work. The internal article generated an incredible response, with about half of the emails thanking her and saying how important it is to be open about mental health. The other half of her correspondents wrote about personal experiences with OCD or another mental illness. Several had children diagnosed with OCD—at even younger ages than she was.

She noted that what really struck her was how many people have been affected by mental illness through family, friends, or personal experience. It can be easy to feel isolated in one’s own unique situations, but being ‘open’ about mental illness has shown that there’s a lot of support out there.

This story reminded me that we don’t always know what the people around us are dealing with and that just because you don’t struggle with mental illness now, doesn’t mean that you won’t be affected by it later. And if that happens, you’ll likely need the help and support of colleagues and friends.

When we stigmatize people with mental health challenges, we make it harder for everyone to find and accept help. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that only about four in ten Americans with a mental illness received treatment in 2014.

Companies need to create an environment in which our colleagues can feel safe enough to “speak up.” And we need to be sure they understand privacy policies that help them to get the help they need—whether from the medical community or from their employer.

But we can’t make this their burden alone. Let’s all be more open about how mental health struggles have touched us, our families, and our loved ones. That way our colleagues will know they’re not alone.

Learn more about Mental Health Awareness month and how you can support a loved one with a mental illness.

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  • Jen Fisher

    𝗩𝗼𝗶𝗰𝗲 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘄𝗲𝗹𝗹𝗯𝗲𝗶𝗻𝗴 + 𝗵𝘂𝗺𝗮𝗻 𝘀𝘂𝘀𝘁𝗮𝗶𝗻𝗮𝗯𝗶𝗹𝗶𝘁𝘆 | 𝖡𝖾𝗌𝗍𝗌𝖾𝗅𝗅𝗂𝗇𝗀 𝖠𝗎𝗍𝗁𝗈𝗋 | 𝖳𝖤𝖣𝗑 𝖲𝗉𝖾𝖺𝗄𝖾𝗋 | 𝖧𝗈𝗌𝗍 #𝖶𝗈𝗋𝗄𝖶𝖾𝗅l | 𝖳𝗁𝗋𝗂𝗏𝖾 𝖤𝖽𝗂𝗍𝗈𝗋

    Jen Fisher is a leading voice on the intersection of work, well-being, and purpose. Her mission is to help leaders move from the legacy mindset that well-being is solely the responsibility of the individual to the forward-thinking idea of human sustainability, which supports the long-term, collective well-being of individuals, organizations, climate, and society.  

    She’s the co-author of the bestselling, award-winning book, Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines, the Human Sustainability Editor-at-Large for Thrive Global, and the host of the WorkWell podcast series.

    As the first chief well-being officer of a professional services organization, Jen built and led the creation and execution of a pioneering holistic and inclusive well-being strategy that has received recognition from leading business media brands and associations.

    Jen is a frequent writer on issues impacting the workplace today, including the importance of mental health and social connection to workforce resilience, happiness, and productivity. Her work has been featured in CNBC, CNN, Fast Company, Fortune, Inc, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Harvard Business Review, among others.

    She’s a sought-after speaker and has been featured at events including TEDx, World Happiness Summit, Out & Equal Workplace Summit, Acumen Global Gathering, WorkHuman, The Atlantic Pursuit of Happiness event, and more. She’s also lectured at top universities across the country, including Harvard, Wake Forest, Duke, and George Mason.

    Jen is passionate about sharing her breast cancer and burnout recovery journeys to help others. She’s also a healthy lifestyle enthusiast, self-care champion, exercise fanatic, sleep advocate, and book nerd! Jen lives in Miami with her husband, Albert, and dog, Fiona.

    You can find her on LinkedIn or on Twitter and Instagram @JenFish23. You can also receive her personal insights and reflections by subscribing to her newsletter, "Thoughts on Being Well" @jenfisher.substack.com.