By Matthew Ratz ’05

It has become increasingly clear, through conversations on social media, many organizations are still missing the mark when it comes to being inviting, accommodating workplaces for people with mental health conditions. I was recently eavesdropping on a chat with peers, one of whom asked, “How should I disclose my bipolar diagnosis to my boss?” The cacophony of replies resoundingly screamed, “Do not disclose!”

Far too many people have been victimized, stigmatized and discriminated against after being vulnerable and honest about their mental health conditions. Mental health stigma remains deeply seated in our culture.

On the flip side, employers who are unaware of employees’ mental health conditions cannot be expected to provide appropriate accommodations simply through clairvoyance. Employees with mental illnesses need to be standard-bearers both by eschewing our own feelings of shame and stigmatization and by demanding workplace justice and equity. But how do we accomplish this feat in the current environment?

COVID-19 has wreaked a number of consequences for our society, a chief one being renewed focus on mental wellness and pursuing true work/life balance. Mental health continues to be at the forefront of the conversation about disabilities and inclusion and equity. Despite this reality, too many companies are longing for the bygone days of silently struggling workforces blindly (and begrudgingly) completing their assigned tasks in high-rise office buildings. The chasm is wide between what workers want and what executives desire. And whose side triumphs is yet to be determined.

Truly, this conundrum is befuddling; as more professionals acknowledge their mental health challenges, more organizations will be bereft of real solutions. Here are three actions leaders can take to really level the playing field for employees with mental illness:

1. Fight against your own stigma and bias.

Far too many people who do not have mental illness stigmatize those of us who do. Too many people fail to use person-first language, so we who live with mental illness become people who “struggle,” “fight” or “succumb to” our diagnoses. Even though statistics show 1 in 5 adults will face a mental health diagnosis, too many people picture the absolute worst. Certainly, popular media depictions haven’t helped, but in reality, most people with mental illness are not hysterical monsters foaming at the mouth; we are just people dealing with different internal challenges. Professionals with mental illness are no less capable, no less ambitious and no less worthy. Projects like the Anti-Stigma Project can provide a great starting point for these conversations.

2. Apply best equity and inclusion practices universally.

Some organizations have taken bold steps to include previously excluded voices, whether those are voices of BIPOC employees, voices of LGBTQIA+ folks, or voices of other disenfranchised groups. Companies create Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or Peer Learning Communities (PLCs) to amplify underrepresented voices. Those same approaches need to be applied to those with mental health conditions. The disability community is the largest minority population in the US, but far too often, our voices are silenced. Leaders need to create pathways for us to gather so we can collectively come up with solutions that foster equity and inclusion. According to the group Mindshare Partners, “Mental health ERGs have the potential to create psychological safety and reduce stigma throughout a company.”

3. Maintain a mindset of openness to continued learning.

There is a saying in the mental health community, “When you’ve met one person with mental illness, you’ve met one person with mental illness.” In other words, do not generalize from one person’s experience. Each person living with mental illness has developed their own coping strategies and their own guidelines for navigating life. Leaders need to assume a place of open-mindedness and they will be well served to exhibit an air of the humble learner when working with employees with mental illness, because none of our diagnoses manifest the same way, nor can they be ameliorated the same way. Listen to us so we can broaden your awareness.

I realize these actions are not easy asks. For these mindsets to become cemented, a lot of inner work and reflection needs to happen first. However, mental illness in the workplace is not going away; if anything, the pandemic has boosted the mental health conversation to front and center. Leaders and organizations who want to be thought leaders in this area must be willing to do the inner work to make equity and inclusion possible for the millions of people living with mental illness. Undoubtedly, we deserve it.

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