Mental health requires more than a hotline

A Personal Call to Action for Leaders to Support Mental Health

It was April 2011 when we got the call. One of our colleagues, let’s call him Jake, had taken his own life and was no longer with us.

When I got that call, I was the CEO and co-founder of Appirio, a 5-year old, 400-person services firm in the fast-paced world of cloud computing. Jake was one of our technical consultants who, like most of our team at that time, worked remotely. Because of this I didn’t interact with Jake all that often, but knew him as a smart guy on the quiet side who was tight with his team and had a surprising gift for poker and juggling. I witnessed the latter at our annual company meeting where he got a standing ovation at our “Appirio’s Got Talent” show.

His wife told us that Jake had struggled with depression for a long time, but all I could think about was how happy and full of life he seemed when we last saw him. It was a stark reminder that you never know what’s going on behind the scenes.

That’s the thing about mental illness and what makes it so hard – it’s all too often hidden from view.

That’s the thing about mental illness and what makes it so hard – it’s all too often hidden from view. It’s not visible like a broken arm or a physical illness that tends to elicit a natural sympathy from even the most oblivious person. Mental illnesses can live in the background and are too often a silent struggle that is misunderstood and easily dismissed by those who have never experienced it personally.

The truth is, more and more of us are experiencing it personally. I’ve gone through it with immediate and extended family members, who battled the range of minor short term bouts to major long term situations. In some cases, there were trigger or catalyst events. In other situations they were, and still are, long running. Luckily they’ve been managed with the right combination of awareness, therapy and medication.

Most notable, and shaping for me early in my career, was a situation where I needed to unplug for two months to take care of what could have been perceived as a non-issue. I quickly realized that the tax and toll of trying to balance my personal and professional life was too material. I needed to go all in on the family, and I was fortunate enough to have a company and colleagues around me that understood. I had a manager and co-workers who covered for me and allowed me to help manage this invisible illness that was impacting our family.

The role of a CEO in supporting mental health

My personal experience with mental illness has had a profound impact on me, but the Jake situation changed me as a CEO.

It’s one thing when you’re dealing with a situation personally, but how you handle sensitive issues as a leader has an impact far greater than just yourself. After we got the call about Jake, we talked as a management team about how we wanted to communicate the news to the company. How could we support his family and celebrate Jake’s life, but also talk about this as a real issue? How much should we say? I’m sure we didn’t handle everything perfectly, but we did our best.

It’s one thing when you’re dealing with a situation personally, but how you handle sensitive issues as a leader has an impact far greater than just yourself.

It’s been more than ten years since Jake’s death, and luckily mental health is on the radar of far more people. What used to be a topic of conversation reserved for healthcare professionals and those struggling with it, is now talked about in boardrooms, educational institutions and government bodies across the world.

What was once a personal issue has now become a business issue. And for good reason.

Depression alone accounts for $44 billion in lost productivity, and as I’ll explain below, providing support for mental health is now an expectation from employees.

A catalyst for the conversation

Mental health awareness has been increasing for years, but the pandemic made the conversations more urgent. COVID disrupted our lives in so many ways and continues to rear its ugly head even to this day. Add into the mix racial tensions, war, political instability and a deepening environmental crisis (just to name a few), and it’s no surprise that depression and anxiety are off the charts. Especially within the younger generations.

Consider these stats on Gen Z, which will soon make up more than a third of our workforce:

  • Gen Z adults (18-29ish) report the highest levels of stress of any generation (American Psychological Association)
  • 60% of Gen Z employees say that mental health resources are important in selecting an employer (McKinsey)
  • 41% of Gen Zers think mental health benefits will become a legal requirement for all employers in the next five years (Forrester)

Like other generations, Gen Z has seen a lot. The difference is they are digital natives and have been raised on a steady diet of social media which pushes these issues (and in my opinion, other bad behavior) front and center.

They’ve also come of age in an era where mental health isn’t a taboo topic. An age when going to a therapist is as common as visiting an orthodontist, and where mental health and meditation apps abound. A large number of Gen Zers have also attended universities and colleges where counseling is now offered as a free service, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when they leave those environments expecting the same level of support from their employers.

Businesses seem to be rising to the challenge. According to the same McKinsey study referenced above, 70% of employers report they plan to invest in mental health resources by starting, continuing or expanding benefits.

I just hope these companies don’t re-evaluate these plans as cash gets tighter.

5 ways to start addressing the issue today

There is no one size fits all solution to this problem, but there are things that every CEO and founder can do to elevate awareness, empathy and support for those dealing with mental illness. Here are a few places to start:

1. Evaluate your existing benefits. Mental health support requires more than a hotline. Understand what the options are, and think through how your benefits and culture can support people struggling with these illnesses personally or those they love. An Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) is a good start, but it’s just that, a start. What else can you do? For example, can you afford to offer paid time off in addition to unpaid leave?

2. Communicate what’s available. Make sure new and existing employees understand what they have access to and how to access it. All too often companies make a benefit available and shut it down because people didn’t know it was there and didn’t use it. People might not pay attention to the fact you have a substance abuse support program when they join, but when a spouse or child has an issue, they’ll take notice.

3. Focus on access. Awareness might be up, but discovery is hard and the supply of mental health professionals is low. Explore partnerships with organizations like Project Healthy Minds, a group I’m involved with that is making it easier to find professionals and peer support groups.

4. Treat mental illness like a physical illness. Acknowledge that mental illness is real even if you can’t see it. If someone comes to you and says they need time or support, treat them the same as you would if they told you they were struggling to control their diabetes. If your brain isn’t working, how is that different from another part of your body not working?

5. Coach team members. Talk about how managers and co-workers can help people in these situations. If an employee comes to a manager and says they are struggling with anxiety or depression, how can managers help isolate certain things that are causing the anxiety and minimize them? You can’t remove every stressor in a job, but if 8 out of 10 things are causing anxiety, can you cut a few of them out? When should they escalate to human resources or to a professional? Do they need some extended down time to reset like I did early in my career? Start with the leadership team so it filters down and sets the tone with their teams.

This is a complicated issue and these tips just scratch the surface of what we should be doing. But avoiding the topic is no longer an option.

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