If we confront mental illness in the workplace, we can remove the stigma

Teenager with depression sitting alone in dark room
Teenager with depression sitting alone in dark room Getty Images

It’s likely that the New Year’s resolutions we made a few weeks ago are mostly self-centered — lose weight, drink less, travel more — the kind we rarely achieve. At work, resolutions often revolve around our productivity — more focus, new skills and less wasted time on routine tasks.

Take a different tack for 2019. Resolve to become your own Chief Mental Health Officer, a process that starts with yourself, but really focuses on others.

There is a lot of emotional pain in the world these days. In 2018, there was much written about America’s ongoing battle with depression and anxiety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017. The suicide rate has steadily increased by 33 percent from 1999 to 2017, with a 26 percent increase in men and a 53 percent increase in women. In June 2018, fashion designer Kate Spade and chef, author, and TV star Anthony Bourdain, both took their lives within days of each other. We also lost 70,000 people to opioid overdoses.

Tech and social-media companies accused of exacerbating mental health issues have begun implementing tactics to aid users who are struggling. Facebook now employs artificial intelligence technologies across its platform to detect mental health issues and forward resources, and even first-responder support, to those it determines are suffering. Apps such as MY3, Stay Alive and Operation Reach Out have also been created to offer support to people in the midst of a crisis.

Mental illness knows no bounds between professional sectors or socioeconomic status, nor can the effect of mental health on careers and employment status be considered benign. What we do and how we work often dictates our sense of security and our feelings of accomplishment and purpose. An organization that promotes listening, especially to minority voices, can foster well-being at work. However, workplaces can also foster feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety and frustration with others and ourselves. Again and again, we see those who once led productive professional lives suddenly underperform, become complacent or disappear from the workforce because of the stigma and shame of their illness or struggles.

Today, business leaders are more aware of the impact of poor mental health on employees and the ripple effect it has on their organizations. Though these are difficult waters to navigate, managers have the power to set a tone that encourages mental health and proactively establish work boundaries and protocols that enhance employee well-being without sacrificing performance. One of the most important places a manager can begin to enact this kind of mentality in the workplace is to understand his or her own limitations when dealing with a struggling employee.

When we recognize the boundaries of our own experiences, that we are business professionals and not doctors, we can better balance the needs of the employee, the team and the organization. Ask yourself: When you confront these issues, are you focused on yourself, the employee or the firm? What is driving your focus? How have you behaved in past situations? After reflecting on your tendencies, try to predict how you are likely to behave next time you are presented with a similar situation. All approaches have pros and cons. Are you clear about what the consequences will be for you? Others?

Unfortunately, the double helix of fear and stigma often foils our efforts. In our research, managers often offer up the standard responses: “My employees’ mental health is really none of my business — nor is my mental health any of theirs.” “I am worried about my liability here.” “Isn’t this what HR and Employee Assistance Programs are for?” Another popular refrain: “I know this is important, but am not really qualified to make a difference.”

But if employers learned that mental resilience is the No. 1 predictor of a productive team, would that be a convincing argument that they should educate themselves?

As business leaders and colleagues, let’s heed the call, as Henry David Thoreau said, of the “quiet desperation” of our fellow employees. The new year offers a fresh opportunity to improve our knowledge of mental health challenges, learn how to respond appropriately in a professional setting and develop supportive practices for our friends, our families and ourselves.

John A. Quelch is dean of the University of Miami Business School. Carin-Isabel Knoop is executive director of the Global Research Group at the Harvard Business School. They are co-authors of the book “Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace.”