We Need to Talk More About Mental Health at Work

January 8, 2019
Author:
Morra Aarons-Mele for Harvard Business Review
Speaker Dr. Drew Ramsey: We Need to Talk More About Mental Health at Work

Alyssa Mastromonaco is no stranger to tough conversations: she served as White House deputy chief of staff for operations under President Obama, was an executive at Vice and A&E, and is Senior Advisor and spokesperson at NARAL Pro-Choice America. So when Mastromonaco switched to a new antidepressant, she decided to tell her boss.

“I told the CEO that I was on Zoloft and was transitioning to Wellbutrin,” Mastromonaco said. “I can react strongly to meds, so I was worried switching would shift my mood and wanted her to know why. I talked about it like it was the most normal thing in the world —it is!”

Her boss was supportive. “You got it,” she said.

When Mastromonaco goes to work, she and her mental health struggles do not part ways at the door. “You want me,” she said, “you get all of me.” Mastromonaco brings tremendous talent to her workplace — but she also brings her anxiety. The same is true for high-performing employees everywhere: one in four adults experiences mental illness each year and an estimated 18% of the US adult population have an anxiety disorder. And yet we’re loath to talk about mental health at work. If we’re feeling emotional at work, our impulse is to conceal it — to hide in the bathroom when we’re upset, or book a fake meeting if we need alone time during the day. We’re hesitant to ask for what we need — flex time, or a day working from home — until we experience a major life event, like a new baby or the illness of a parent. We would more likely engage in a trust fall with our boss than admit that we have anxiety.

Mental illness is a challenge, but it is not a weakness. Understanding your psyche can be the key to unleashing your strengths — whether it’s using your sensitivity to empathize with clients, your anxiety to be a more thoughtful boss, or your need for space to forge new and interesting paths. When we acknowledge our mental health, we get to know ourselves better, and are more authentic people, employees, and leaders. Research has found that feeling authentic and open at work leads to better performance, engagement, employee retention, and overall wellbeing.

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