When many of us think of someone with a mental health condition, we think of a homeless person or the perpetrator of a school shooting, thanks, in large part, to the media. On the flip side, we think of the quirky, creative celebrity who struggles every now and then but is able to take time off in between projects. But how many of us think of the high-performing professional who is successful at work but has occasional flare-ups of a condition like depression or anxiety, much like someone with chronic asthma?
That high-performing professional is me. And it is very likely one of your colleagues, too.
We are actually the much more accurate—and common—profile of someone managing a mental health condition. In fact, mental health conditions are more common than cancer, heart disease or diabetes—combined. Up to 80% of Americans will experience a diagnosable mental health condition at some point during their lives, whether they know it or not. For some, this will be chronic, and for others, it will be temporary—perhaps in reaction to the loss of a job or a loved one. We all move back and forth along the spectrum of mental wellness throughout the course of our lives. Given its massive prevalence, this means that mental health affects every conference call, every team and every meeting.
Does this come as a surprise? If so, it’s probably because we’re very good at keeping ourselves hidden. There are many of us excelling in top companies all over the world and hiding because of the still deeply entrenched stigma around what it means to have a mental health condition.
My nonprofit, Mind Share Partners, created this new video to give people a glimpse into what it’s like to be a working professional navigating a day with a mental health condition. While this individual initially appears distressed in order to give us a sense of his inner experience, many people are all too effective at ensuring that their conditions remain invisible until they improve.
More than two-thirds of employees hide their mental health conditions from their coworkers. The burden of having to do that can actually be more challenging than the condition itself.According to a Deloitte U.K. study, 95% of people who have taken time off due to stress gave another reason, such as a headache or stomach issue.
I know many of our tricks to stay hidden all too well. It’s saying that we’re going to the doctor or the dentist when we’re actually going to our therapist (or even worse, our psychiatrist). It’s explaining that we’re dealing with some personal issues when we’ve hit a rough patch and our performance isn’t up to par. In my case, I found out later that this resulted in a manager thinking that I was having marital problems and a peer believing that I’d had a miscarriage. Though neither of these assumptions were true, both might have been more socially acceptable alternatives to what was actually going on. That speaks volumes.
So why do we do this, why go to these lengths to blend in and hide our mental health conditions? That can be answered simply in one word: stigma.
Oxford Dictionaries defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.” Synonyms include “shame…[and] dishonor.” No one wants to be on the receiving end of this, so a chain reaction happens. Many people don’t acknowledge that they actually have a mental health condition, even to themselves, because they are so afraid of the label. They never get diagnosed or if they do, they may not get treatment. Eight in 10 workers with a mental health condition state that shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment, which can typically be very effective. They hide their condition at work, as we discussed, and that isolation and suffering in silence just makes things worse. Not to mention the human suffering, all of this makes for a less than ideal work environment—harming productivity, teams and employee engagement.
What can we do about the stigma from a workplace lens? As with combatting any other negative stereotype that can lead to discrimination, the first step is to recognize that it exists and that all of us probably have some bias, whether conscious or unconscious.We can then catch ourselves and reframe when it starts to surface. Everyone can do their part to make mental health conditions normal and okay to experience in the office. Especially if you are a manager or a leader, be vulnerable and share your own challenges, whether mental health-related or not. All of this is hard, but critical, work.
Despite founding a workplace mental health nonprofit, even I still have self-stigma about my own anxiety disorder. The negative perception is that ingrained in our culture. But the bright spot is that we’re at a clear inflection point. More and more people are opening up about their own mental health—actors, athletes and singers, among others. Now the workplace needs to lead as well in order to achieve true culture change.
And if you are that high-performing professional, know that you’re not alone. And you’re definitely not less than.