Madalyn Parker suffers from chronic anxiety, depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A few weeks ago, after several sleepless nights and bouts of suicidal thoughts, she emailed her coworkers that she was taking two days off to focus on her mental health.
In response, Ben Congleton, the CEO of the software development company at which she works, sent the following response:
I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. 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” (Parker, 2017).
This exchange, which has drawn a lot of attention across social media, with many applauding both Parker and Congleton, is a shift from the stigma it references.
This stigma is exemplified in surveys such as the one done by the American Psychological Association in 2016, which determined that less than half of working Americans feel their workplace support employee well-being (Schmidt, 2017). As one woman remarked upon Congleton’s response, “Wow, I wish! I needed a medical mental health stay once. Upon my return, my boss told me not to let it happen again or my job would be gone” (Schmidt 2017, p.14).
The Business in the Communities’ National Employee Mental Wellbeing Survey, a survey done in the UK in 2016, found that “62% of employees attributed their symptoms of poor mental health to work or said that work was a contributing factor[…], half of employees say they would not discuss mental health with their line manager,[… and] 63% of line managers feel they have to put corporate interests before employee wellbeing” (Taking a mental health day, 2017).
To this common problem, Congleton advises employers to create a workplace where employees feel safe talking about issues like mental health.
In a piece he wrote on Medium addressing the interaction he had with Parker, he said, “It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different” (Congleton 2017, p.12).
According to Michelle Riba, a professor of psychiatry and the associate director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, “Studies have shown that [more accepting] workplaces have happier employees with better productivity. Unfortunately, many places are not like that, and even certain types of jobs aren’t accommodating to that” (Holmes 2016, p.5).
Additionally, according to the Center for Disease Control, not making room for mental illness, or even addressing it, is expensive for businesses. “Depression can result in approximately five missed work days and 11.5 days of reduced productivity every three months for an individual. Overall, it costs 200 million lost workdays per year in the United States at a cost of $17 to $44 billion dollars in lost productivity” (Holmes 2016, p.6).
It is not a stretch, then, to assume that if companies were fostering environments in which employees felt comfortable discussing their struggles with mental illness, or providing resources or accommodations for those struggles, this time and money would not be lost, as they would be encouraging the wellness of their employees.
CEOs like Ben Congleton are certainly on the path to such an environment. Companies like Unilever set the bar even higher. Unilever “[provides] mental health trainings for managers and senior leaders, hosts internal campaigns to raise awareness about mental illness, and holds regular employee workshops on sleep, mindfulness and exercise — all of which have been linked to better psychological wellbeing” (Holmes 2016, p.11).
Said Tim Munden, Unilever’s chief learning officer, “If you want a high-performing company, you need resilient, healthy employees. We want our employees to have confidence to have a conversation about mental health. People are very reluctant to speak about it so we want to give people the space to talk about it” (Holmes 2016, p.12).
For more on this topic, read “When a woman took sick days for mental health, her email sparked a larger discussion.”
Schmidt, R. (2017, July 12). When a woman took sick days for mental health, her email sparked a larger discussion. Retrieved July 12, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/12/health/mental-health-response-from-company-ceo-trnd/index.html