By Leah Napier
One of the most memorable expressions of gratitude I’ve received happened in the most ordinary situation. I had just taken a seat on the subway. I was headed home at the end of a work day when a colleague of mine approached me. He was a well-spoken, knowledgeable man. At times I found him reserved and knew little about him personally. That day, he had a purposeful look on his face when he looked me straight in the eyes—with tears in his—and thanked me. He went on to share his story of losing a close friend to suicide and how profoundly it had affected him.
What brought about this man’s gratitude?
A few weeks earlier I had given a talk to a couple hundred associates. This talk launched my former employer’s first mental health focused initiative. The initiative intended to build awareness, normalize mental health, and provide support to associates. My colleague was thanking me for sharing my own personal story. I suspect, however, he was really thanking me for creating a space in which he too could share, deepening a feeling of belonging at work.
In my talk, I shared what it was like growing up with a father who suffered from anxiety, OCD, and bipolar disorder. I described what it felt like in my house on a daily basis and how my Dad was judged and misunderstood by coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family. I shared how this had shaped my views on diversity and inclusion, and instilled in me a curiosity about others’ behavior that starts with a simple but firm belief: “I don’t know what it’s like to be anyone other than me”.
I also shared the traumatic experience of our oldest son developing epilepsy. I talked about learning to navigate this invisible disability, the times when my son felt excluded, and some parallels to mental health conditions.
I shared how, following my son’s diagnosis, there was a period when I was struggling and not doing my best at work and how my boss navigated what could have been a very uncomfortable conversation by starting with the simple question, “Are you OK?”. This approach made it possible for me to realize something was getting in the way of bringing my best to work. I knew if my boss had started that conversation in a different way, I could have left feeling incapable.
I shared the importance of awareness and understanding, challenging all of our associates to expect acceptance from our culture and to ask for or offer help.
My coworker thanking me on the subway is just one example of the response I received from sharing my story. Dozens of associates similarly thanked me and proceeded to share their own stories—many with tears in their eyes. All of them, I believe, conveying the same unspoken sentiment:
“Being able to openly share my experiences with mental health increases my sense of belonging at work.”
Associates didn’t just share their stories, they also raised their hands with enthusiasm to get involved. While this initiative was originally conceived to fill an important gap in the company’s wellness program, I saw a broader opportunity to frame it first through a Diversity and Inclusion lens. Our associates saw this too, and their enthusiasm led to establishing the first Business Resource Group focused on mental health—joining the other well-established groups (gender, LGBTQ, etc.) under the umbrella of the company’s Diversity and Inclusion program.
This experience cemented my belief that mental health belongs at the forefront of any Diversity and Inclusion program.
Framing mental health in the workplace as a pillar of existing Diversity and Inclusion programs, taps into a powerful and pre-existing construct through which we can instill acceptance and awareness in the culture. With the right culture in place, it becomes much easier to change aspects of our workplaces to better support our mental health—from benefit programs and management training to working arrangements.
Adding mental health to Diversity and Inclusion programs also has the potential to broadly move the needle on inclusivity because: it touches so many of us; I’ve seen the intensity of associates’ energy that surrounds the topic; and, there is a unique level of compassion and understanding that comes with being thoughtful and open about mental health. I believe if we can approach all of our interactions with compassion, understanding, and the mindset of “I don’t know what might be going on for this person”, we can live in a more inclusive world, and work for more inclusive organizations.
As leaders, we have a powerful opportunity to tap into our associates’ energy and spark change by being vulnerable and openly sharing our own stories.
Many of those who thanked me said I was brave to share so personally. Brave, however, was not how I felt. Don’t get me wrong, I had butterflies before my talk, but the predominant feeling I had was compelled—to share and to spark a change.
I am grateful to have worked for an organization that made a commitment to mental health and supported me in sharing. I remain simultaneously inspired by the potential for change, proud of the role I played, and deeply humbled by one lingering question, “What took me so long?”