I grew up in an average middle class Greek-Canadian family. My childhood was extremely normal. My older brother and I had the same healthy privileges as many Canadian youth - we went to Marineland in Niagara Falls, we endured road trips to Clearwater Beach in Florida, we saw Disney World. We were, by all accounts average. I was the whiny little sister, and he was the protective big brother. We had two happily married parents who love each other to this day.
Not all of you had such a charmed childhood. You grew up with a depressed or alcoholic parent - or maybe even two. You may have been depressed as a child or teenager. Maybe your family experienced a member with severe mental illness - Schizophrenia, bipolar, or something else. I know this because you represent about three quarters of the executives and managers I work with in my coaching business every day, and you represent about the same ratio of the people who work for me.
My story changed when I was in high school and I learned about clinical depression. After years of living the dream, I found out my mother was suffering. My desire to learn kicked in (I was always a learner).
I did a project for my business class on depression in the workplace. I think back on that now and realize how foretelling that moment was.
A Harsh Reality
A couple years later, my brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Quite possibly the worst of all mental health disorders. Schizophrenia takes over one’s mind and affects behaviours, communications and perceptions in a way that one 18 year-old sister from Richmond Hill was sorely unprepared for.
I’m not sharing this story for your sympathy. Yes, it has been a long and challenging road. But that’s not the point.
Every day, your colleagues come to work with a story just like this one. They arrive on time, ready to work, with the best of intentions to meet your expectations. And every day, those same people fall short because they are either suffering from or caring for someone with a mental illness.
The Numbers Are Disturbing
Overwhelmingly the stats are not in their favour. Those same people are losing their jobs, being put on performance plans, and suffering in silence while you and others around you sit baffled by their apparent inability and incompetence.
This post is a call to action. I am putting you and your workplace on notice. Mental illness is becoming the #1 killer of performance in the workplace and managers and executives everywhere are ill-equipped to handle it.
The stats are real. Over 60% of managers would like to be trained on how to handle mental illness in the workplace. Less than 20% have been educated in it.
Know Your Enemy
Mental illness, like any other physical or mental challenge is one you absolutely need to be prepared for and accommodate as an employer. “Accommodation” is a word used to describe an employer’s requirement, for instance, to have wheelchair accessible desks and bathrooms for employees with physical disabilities.
How interesting. We can do that. We KNOW how to build a ramp and make more space.
But how does one “accommodate” mental illness?
That’s a whole other ballgame. That’s an emotional ballgame. That is a scary ballgame. That requires personal strength and courage. It requires the willingness of every manager to listen to, have compassion for, and care for the people on their team who are showing signs of distress or sickness.
That’s not the norm. That’s the opposite of the norm.
Fight For Mental Health
Today, when faced with difficult employees many managers pout and complain and lose their patience. I know this because I’ve met them. I see them every day in my work.
Let me reiterate your call to action: Today, when you go into the office, pay special attention to how people are feeling. Ask a simple question: How are you doing? And instead of taking their first answer at face value, look closely at them and sense the truth in their answer.
I look back on that school project about clinical depression in the workplace with vivid curiosity. At the time, I had no idea I’d be a business coach and consultant. I always thought I’d end up a teacher in a high school taking kids to band camp.
How interesting it is that here I am, 20 years later, teaching business professionals about the realities of mental illness and emotional instability.