You Should Feel Comfortable Addressing Mental Health at Work

You Should Feel Comfortable Addressing Mental Health at Work

This article first appeared as “It’s My Cubicle, and I’ll Cry If I Want To” in the August 2018 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Autumn is a trigger for Giulia Lukach, 36, who works in digital marketing at a national retailer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her first hospitalization for bipolar disorder took place in September 2009, her second in October 2012. And two years later, while the rest of San Francisco was basking in beautiful October weather, Lukach noticed the signs of a relapse: sleeplessness, lack of appetite, and mounting anxiety.

She alerted her boss, letting her know that though she couldn’t come into the office, she’d stay in touch via email. Her boss didn’t miss a beat: “She told me to take care of myself,” Lukach says. Even after Lukach wound up hospitalized for two weeks, her conversations with her employer weren’t about whether she could continue to work there; they focused on creating a healthy transition back. Lukach still reports to the same supervisor—and has since been promoted to a director level role.

Such a scenario would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, when talking about depression, never mind bipolar disorder, was seen as an admission of weakness or unreliability—and could have dire career consequences. “People didn’t take these conditions seriously,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health, set up in 2005 by the American Psychiatric Association to help organizations support their employees’ well-being. In the days before Brooke Shields, Lena Dunham, and J.K. Rowling spoke out about mental illness, women with depression and anxiety were often too embarrassed to broach the subject with their friends, let alone those signing their paychecks.

Yet today women like Lukach are putting their mental health issues out there, and many companies are responding with compassion. We’re letting our guard down with our coworkers, too, openly scheduling meetings around therapy appointments and comparing notes on antidepressants.

The shift has come about in fits and starts. In 1990,

the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, making it illegal for employers to discriminate against qualified individuals with a disability, including a “mental impairment.” That sounded heartening in theory; in practice, while companies focused on accommodating employees with physical disabilities, they did little for those with mental or emotional issues. When 1997 guidelines reiterated that major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety and personality disorders counted, too, the reaction was far from sympathetic. Newspapers ran editorial cartoons like one featuring a job applicant dressed as Jason, the hockey-mask-wearing slasher from Friday the 13th, and the TV show King of the Hill mocked the ADA as an excuse to slack off on the job.

It wasn’t until 2008 that Congress put insurance money where its mouth was, passing a law requiring group health plans and insurers that provide coverage for mental health and substance-abuse treatment to offer benefits comparable to what they provided for physical or surgical care. Then, in a 2012 speech at Harvard Business School, no less a thought leader than Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg urged graduates to consider bringing your “whole self” to work—including your fears, sadness, and whatever else you’re dealing with. In 2014, the Affordable Care Act made mental health services (like therapy sessions) an “essential benefit” that new individual insurance plans must cover. And earlier this year, after basketball stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan revealed their history with, respectively, anxiety and depression, the NBA and the players union announced plans for a new mental wellness program for the entire league. Companies are starting to treat mental health issues as the medical conditions they are, Gruttadaro says.

They’re also waking up to the fact that mood disorders don’t just bring down workers—they’re a drag on the bottom line. Consider that as of 2010, major depressive disorder alone cost American companies almost $43 billion annually in missed workdays and reduced productivity. At least one study has shown that the more severe an employee’s depression, the more expensive it is for the employer. Yet depression is treatable, and the earlier treatment begins, the better. Helping employees stay well, and intervening when they’re struggling, makes smart business sense.

One company taking notice and investing in its employees’ mental health is EY, the professional services firm formerly known as Ernst & Young. Nearly ten years ago, Rachel Gerring was a senior manager there when she developed postpartum depression and started avoiding meetings so she could hide in her office and cry. Desperate for help, she called the EY Assist program, which connects employees with counselors, then decided to quietly take a leave of absence. “I was sure it would be career suicide,” she says.

That wasn’t the case: Gerring rose through the ranks to become partner. Still, her self-consciousness lingered, so she rarely mentioned her experience with depression. But a year and a half ago, at an EY town hall focused on mental health, Gerring went public about what she’d gone through, to help struggling coworkers feel less alone and to show managers that mental health issues can be handled successfully. EY also launched a program called We Care, designed to destigmatize mental health issues, educate employees on the signs of mental illness, and encourage people to seek help if they need it. The company reports calls to EY Assist have increased 32 percent since We Care began.

We seem to be at the beginning of a sensitivity sea change: While a recent survey of 314 U.S. companies found that only 25 percent had programs to reduce stigma around seeking help for a behavioral health issue, it also found that an additional 35 percent were at least considering putting such programs in place by 2019.

In the past seven years, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft all have started offering on-site counseling. (At Google, the benefit is so popular that there’s usually a waiting list.) Indeed, tech companies have been the most willing to improve mental health programs—which makes sense given that they’re disproportionately launched and staffed by people under 40. As a group, millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are more eager to talk about self-care and emotional wellness than older workers are; they also place a higher priority on work-life balance. No wonder, then, that “one of the top benefits requested from both employers and employees is a wide array of mental health care options,” says David Feinberg, VP of operations and risk at Justworks, a platform that handles benefits and payroll for more than 35,000 workers, mostly at millennial-run or -staffed companies.

Of course, there are still entire industries where work seems to come before wellness. A 2017 survey from Mental Health America and the Faas Foundation identified the manufacturing, retail, and food and beverage sectors as having the least mentally healthy workplaces. While we wait for them to get with the program, coworkers are asking each other how they’re really doing—and, even better, expecting an honest answer.

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