It took twelve years and three mental breakdowns for me to decide to share my story at work. I am an admired leader. I have run a successful marketing firm for 17 years. I am the face you see in the dictionary when you look up the words high achiever. And I am a person who actively manages a mental health disorder.
I am no different than the millions of people who silently suffer with mental health issues in cubicles across the country each day. The only difference may be that as a business owner, I have the influence and platform to use my voice to speak for the voiceless in Corporate America who, like me, suffer in silence everyday.
In fact, making the decision to expose myself and share my story hasn’t been easy. I’ve weighed the risks and turned them over in my mind for years, fearing that sharing the truth about my struggle would somehow lead to my professional demise.
After all, it’s hard to live in a world where jokes about bipolar weather, people with multiple personalities and mental breakdowns are the punchlines in everyday office chatter and boardrooms each day. Quite honestly, it’s been easier to smile and pretend that not being seen doesn’t hurt.
Normalizing Mental Pain
Can you imagine what it feels like to ignore parts of yourself, diminishing your story and the power of your truth for the sake of other people’s comfortability?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we are beginning to have a conversation about mental illness in the workplace, but what’s not lost on me is the reality that we are still talking around the issue assuming the people who are suffering are not like us. Instead, we marginalize those whose daily struggle is real and relegate them to “other” status so that we won’t have to look at the role we each play in perpetuating the social stigma of mental illness in our society.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen people joke online, hashtagging posts with #mentalillnessisreal, or I have kept quiet when someone at work was making an inappropriate joke about their co-worker’s mental state. Why do we assume that the “we” are not the mentally ill?
The Truth About Mental Illness In Corporate America
In reality, the mentally ill live amongst us everyday hiding in plain sight not because they want to, but because they’ve been led to believe that having a mind that is different is somehow bad or wrong. I know first hand that offices across our country are full of silent stories. The mentally ill are our bosses, our co-workers, our little league coaches, our neighbors and our friends.
There are times in my career that I have had to unexpectedly take a leave of absence for three weeks, two months or even 90 days to seek treatment for my disorder. Yet, somehow it’s easier to have empathy and extend grace to people who have socially acceptable illnesses.
What’s more, because of the silent stigma imposed on those of us who suffer in silence, returning to work is often met with awkwardness, making it difficult to explain away unexpected absences without fear of retaliation, retribution or anger from colleagues, co-workers and bosses who feel you owe them a valid explanation.
The Truth Will Set Us Free
And so, for years I hid my truth sneaking off for therapy sessions on my lunch break, releasing my pain in journals that now line the bookshelves in my home, and trying my best to manage my stress levels in a career field where epidemic stress, burnout and unforgiving deadlines are the debt that must be paid to succeed and advance. With a growing expectation in Corporate America that we be more connected at work than we ever have been, are we not creating workplace cultures that work against the very issue that we are trying to resolve?
Until we are ready to look inside our own hallways and engage in real converstaions around our water coolers, we will not truly be able to make headway in this national conversation we are attempting to have.
It’s time we begin sharing our real stories with each other and creating safe spaces in our offices for people to take off their masks and bring their best selves to work each and everyday.
In my office, we’ve taken up the mantel to lead the way in this most important national conversation by being intentional about baking practical and measurable work/life balance strategies into our corporate culture.
By implementing email policies that require our employees to unplug from email after 7pm on weekdays and on weekends, by championing a corporate culture that celebrates 35 hour work weeks and by promoting our JOY Economics work/life balance corporate platform, we are doing what we can to address mental health awareness issues in our workplace.
May Is Mental Health Awareness Month
As we prepare for Mental Health Awareness Month in May, I hope that we can each find ways to do our part to lean in on the mental health discussions that will be taking place in our workplaces.
By being more sensitive, more kind and more aware of the silent struggles going on daily within each of our lives, we each can play an active role in erasing stigma and empowering those who suffer in silence to raise their voices and finally be seen.