For years I suffered from my mental illness in silence. Only my closest relatives were aware that I was diagnosed with OCD and managing anxiety every day. From the outside looking in, my burdens weren
’t obvious. I was certain that if my colleagues or manager found out about my mental illness, the label would destroy my identity in the workplace. That was until I was introduced to Made of Millions’ ‘Dear Manager’ campaign, an initiative that looks to end mental health stigma at work. The campaign has helped me gain the confidence to own my identity, have difficult conversations with my manager and create boundaries to maintain a healthy work-life balance. But truthfully, none of this would have been possible without the unwavering support of my manager, Larissa Gaston.
I was an intern when I first met Larissa -- and couldn’t help but be intimidated by her confidence, level of productivity and dependability. She was everything my mental illness wouldn’t let me be... I thought. When she became my manager, I pledged never to share my struggle with OCD. She wasn’t “weak,” so I co
uldn’t be either. Eventually Larissa went on to a new role, and I continued to suffer in silence. Until one afternoon, I read an Instagram story featuring a woman named Max, which read, “Dear Manager, The things that make me good at my job are often symptoms of hypomania. Being chastised for emotional lows makes me think I’m only valuable when I’m suffering. Let’s find a solution.” I don’t suffer from bipolar disorder like Max, but I can relate to her experience. My OCD shows up in many forms, one of them being perfectionism, a symptom often rewarded in the workplace. For me perfectionism is less than ideal. My increased distress about getting things “just
right” can lead to alienation, procrastination and unrealistic standards that I’ll never meet. The ‘Dear Manager’ campaign reminded me that I'm not alone. There are stories from founders, designers, engineers and others who all share their struggle with mental health in the workplace.
Reading these stories made my shame subside. If they can be strong, then so can I. I made an Instagram account dedicated to destigmatizing mental illness, and within a few weeks, it gained a decent following. Larissa was one of those followers. She engaged with my posts and sent me a kind message about how much she appreciated my project.
Now, a couple of years later, I am back working for Larissa. She’s less intimidating this time, not because she’s cha
nged, but because I have. I allowed myself to be vulnerable and Larissa responded with humanity. She’s never judged me the way I expected her to. Instead, she’s shown curiosity, empathy, and even concern at times. With Larissa’s support, I’ve been able to perform at a higher level, creating a greater impact on my team and organization. That’s why this Mental Health Aw
areness Month, I want to encourage all managers to prioritize their team’s mental health and offer up support to employees who might be struggling -- here’s how you can start:
Understand the statistics
What impacts people impacts business. According to the ADAA, and highlighted in the Beautiful Brains handbook by the Made of Millions Foundation, nearly 57% of employees say stress and anxiety affect job performance, and 51% say anxiety affects their relationships with coworkers. However, only 40% of employees whose stress interferes with work have talked to their employer or supervi
sor about it. The fear of judgment, misunderstanding and false interpretations were the top reasons employees felt ashamed to share their mental health experience with their boss. Data collected by The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts shows that 81% of productivity loss results from presenteeism -- the lack of productivity due to working while sick. This means when an employee suffers, so will the business. Being aware of the statistics will allow you to support your teams on a deeper level, while actionably supporting your business.
n to difficult conversations
easy to pretend like everything is alright. Hiding my mental illness was a symptom of my mental illness. OCD feeds off control. By not disclosing that I had OCD, I was able to upkeep my “image” and guard myself against judgment and uncomfortable conversations -- subsequently guarding my manager too. How would she react knowing that I spend over 8+ hours a day replaying intrusive thoughts in my head or avoid usi
ng certain words because if I say them out loud, something terrible might happen? What if she thinks I’m making it up? These are questions many people with OCD ask themselves before disclosing their disorder to others. Every mental illness looks different, so it’s impossible to predict what someone is going through, but if you’re a manager and your employee trusts you enough to open up, be open to what might be an awkward but enlightening conversation(s).
What might work for one person might not work for another. In the Beautiful Brains handbook, they list several accommodations to consider for employees with mental health issues, and remind you that, “when someone reaches out to discuss an accommodations plan, sit down and pinpoint challenges together. Then come up with a solution that works for both parties,” (pg. 13, Made of Millions). When I started working at Exabeam, I was in the middle of intensive Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. Larissa agreed that I could take an extra hour every other Friday to attend therapy. This took the pressure off of me because I could continue treatment without hiding why I couldn’t be in the office during that time. When you accommodate your employees to put their health first, you will create an environment founded on trust, ultimately setting individuals and your business up for success.
Last but not certainly not least, I encourage you to show those struggling with mental illness empathy. We do not choose to be mentally ill. While I know some of the greatest parts of me have derived from my mental illness, I’m acutely aware of the moments, opportunities and time lost to my disorder. I’m equally aware of those who have supported me through some of my darkest moments -- I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. So if you have the opportunity to be like Larissa, I hope you can show up for your team in the ways she has for me. You may change someone's life.
I want to thank Larissa and the Made of Millions Foundation for creating a safe place for me to be my complete self.
BAD FOR BUSINESS: The Business Case for Overcoming Mental Illness Stigma in the Workplace(Rep.). (2015). Retrieved http://ceos.namimass.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/BAD-FOR-BUSINESS.pdf
Beautiful Brains | Made of Millions Fondation (2020). Retrieved https://www.madeofmillions.com/articles/beautiful-brains-a-mental-health-manual-for-the-modern-workforce
Workplace Stress & Anxiety Disorders Survey. Highlights: Workplace Stress & Anxiety Disorders Survey | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. https://adaa.org/workplace-stress-anxiety-disorders-survey.