When Madalyn Rose Parker tweeted a screenshot of an email exchange with her boss a couple of weeks ago, she didn’t expect it to go all over the internet and go viral
“I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health,” Parker, who’s a web developer at the IT firm, Olark, told her team. “Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.” she added.
“Hey Madalyn, I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this,” CEO Ben Congleton wrote back. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health — I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
I was amazed by this.
I said as such on my popular Twitter account (endthestigma_ie) Thousands of likes and retweets followed to Madeline, but so did comments from other workers who had personal stories to share.
Unfortunately, many said Congleton’s response weren’t typical for a business leader. Others detailed their experiences in work cultures that don’t support mental health. I won’t comment on any experience with any employer I’ve had.
The overwhelming response prompted Congleton to pen a follow-up post on “Medium” where he pointed out the prevalence of mental health issues in the U.S.
Here’s what he said, guys:
“It’s 2017. I cannot believe that it is still controversial to speak about mental health in the workplace when 1 in 6 Americans are medicated for mental health.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience a mental illness and 42 million (almost 1 in 5) It’s incredible to read that.
In 2016 there was a “Work and Well-being” survey by the American Psychological Association. It’s broadly studied, but less than half said their employers supported their well-being.
One in three workers reported feeling chronically stressed on the job.
Madeline Parker is among those with anxiety and depression and has spoke up before, but has now initiated a conversation that has the potential to get other employers thinking harder about supporting those who’ve felt less comfortable speaking up about mental health.
Congleton spoke further and mentioned when three workers (including Parker) came forward to talk about issues like burnout, depression, and bipolar disorder. “We created a safe place for people to disclose to each other,” says Congleton.
Olark offers its staff–many of whom work remotely–unlimited paid time off, which includes both vacation and sick time. “We do track sick days to report to the state as required, but generally speaking, we found it’s much more of a problem to get [employees] to take more time off,” he explains. That said, Congleton maintains he’s keen to help other companies “get to this place where people feel safe” talking about mental health issues to the same degree they do about physical health.
It starts with vulnerability as a leader,” says Congleton. “We all struggle, we all face anxiety,” he points out, “and we don’t know all the answers.” He’s dismayed by the idea that people at all levels of a company believe they can never show weakness, which he attributes in part to leaders. Some may come off as idealized emblems of success because of their drive and habit of pushing hard to get stuff done. Despite this impression, Congleton says, “we are all human.”
Another, more practical leadership strategy is to simply trust employees to use sick days for mental health. “They don’t have to disclose it, Congleton says, “but make them feel comfortable doing that [by showing that their] leaders believe that mental health is a real thing.”
It’s my view that anxiety, depression, bipolar illness are viewed through a different lens than other medical conditions, hypertension. This is where we need to break down barriers and end the stigma.
HR can be awkward. Congleton would agree.
Congleton admits he’s unable to suggest what HR managers should or shouldn’t say to employees about mental health, citing compliance concerns with privacy
I would argue certain accommodations be available to all employees, even those who haven’t been formally diagnosed—particularly the ability for anybody to take leave for mental health.
HR can work with Employees here. That’s my two cent.
Congleton also says “The fact that 20% of the workforce is struggling with something that we never talk about is sad,” he says, adding that some of Olark’s top performers have dealt with mental health issues, as is likely true elsewhere—even when those employees don’t talk about mental illness.
I believe Congleton understands the link between productivity and Mental Health. He sways “If we consider an employee who is working at 50% or 30% capacity because they’re on the verge of burnout, Congleton muses, why not let them “take a day and come back refreshed?” Too many companies don’t do that, he suggests, because they still think of mental health days as extra vacation time.
Changing this attitude starts at the top, I believe. CEO’s should get the ball rolling”. Starting that conversation may be as easy as sending a single email, or a tweet.
Let’s be cognisant of Madelyn Parker and Ben Congleton.
Let’s learn from these guys.
Let’s change Mental Health in the workplace.