Silence stunts healing: Opening up about mental health in the workplace. A personal note.Nov 20, 2019
One in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness, yet we’re loath to talk about mental health in the workplace. We’re hesitant to ask for what we need—a flexible work schedule, a mental health day, a check-in with leadership. We don’t want to lose our jobs, be passed up for promotions, be judged by coworkers. The stigma of mental illness keeps us silent. And silence stunts healing.
Recently, I came across an article encouraging a culture shift toward openness. In a sea of employee assistance programs, mindfulness apps, and in-office counseling, the most effective method to destigmatize and improve mental health in the workplace is to start talking about it. Historically, we’ve been taught to separate our personal lives from our work out of fear that sharing our struggles is a sign of weakness. Mental illness is a challenge, but it is not a weakness. Acknowledging our mental health challenges can unleash strength, resilience, and a greater ability to empathize and extend compassion. When we talk about mental illness, we teach ourselves to harness it in ways that play to our strengths. We better understand ourselves and each other, growing into more authentic and engaged employees and leaders.
When I come to work, my mental health struggles and I do not part ways at the door. I bring my creativity and humor, but I also bring my depression and eating disorder. In previous jobs, I worked hard to keep my mask in place. Occasionally, it would slip off in the form of panic attacks in the bathroom, calls to a friend or family member, or deep breaths in the hallway. But I became an expert at maintaining my professional façade. I kept things light, humorous. I was a “yes and,” Grade A, people-pleaser. I kept small talk to complaints about the weather, the latest episode of Game of Thrones, the trials and tribulations of being a plant mom. This felt safe, socially acceptable; but it also felt inauthentic, isolating, and ultimately unsustainable.
I began working for the Center for Health, Work & Environment in 2017, mask in place. Yet I soon realized I was part of a culture that encouraged authenticity. Coworkers were warm, passionate, outspoken, inspiring. Slowly, I brought more of myself to work, leaving only my eating disorder at the door. But pretending it wasn’t out there, waiting, fed a deep shame. It took a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa and three-month stay in a treatment facility for me to realize hiding our mental health struggles under a shame blanket doesn’t work. And opening up works wonders.
In treatment, I struggled with the decision of whether to be open about my experience or not. I came up with stories legitimizing a three-month sabbatical from work, but my desire to connect, educate, and potentially help someone else experiencing a disordered relationship with food or their bodies overwhelmed any desire to stay silent.
While fearful of being judged and overlooked for promotions, I confided in leadership and eventually, coworkers. This open dialogue made me feel safe, seen, and most importantly, connected. Shared vulnerability with coworkers led me to realize their lives were just as messy, colorful, and full of ups and downs as my own.
Building a culture of openness in the workplace is hard. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s doable. And it can start with you, whomever you are, whatever your role. Single moments of compassion can help individuals carrying heavy, hidden burdens feel safe, included, and seen. It starts with a conversation. It starts with answering “how are you” with “I’m struggling.” It starts with sharing about one’s own experience to normalize the experience of others.
I encourage you to practice openness. I encourage you to listen more, ask for help when you need it, offer support where you can, and above all, be gentle with yourself.
Words by Amanda Kujawa, marketing and design manager at the Center for Health, Work & Environment based at the Colorado School of Public Health. She works to build connections between people and ideas through purposeful design and an endless fascination in how people interact with their physical and digital environments.
 For additional statistics on mental illness, visit the NIH website