If you had a cold, no one would bat an eye if you took the day off. Your boss would understand that you’re too sick to get your work done, wish you “feel better” and not think twice about it.
But what if instead of a cold, it was anxiety attacks? Suddenly it’s more complicated.
People who suffer from mental illnesses are no stranger to this strange corporate double-standard: that physical health days are commonplace, but mental health days are stigmatized.
Why can we understand the need to recuperate from a cough, but not from a depressive episode?
It’s a question posed by a recent viral tweet that’s sparked a conversation about mental health care at the office.
Madalyn Parker has struggled with mental illnesses her whole life. From childhood, she suffered from anxiety: “I was the child who cried during emergency drills at school because my brain actually went into emergency mode,” she wrote in an article for Medium.
Her condition worsened as years went by, and by the end of college she was on medication for depression and regularly seeing a therapist.
Things seemed to turn around a bit after college, when Parker landed her dream job at Olark, a live chat software company. But when her medication stopped working, depression left her feeling tired and unmotivated at work, and anxious that her disorders would affect her employer’s view of her.
Worse yet, everyone seemed to be telling her not to bring up her mental health, because it could put her job at risk. The stress of the situation caused her depression to worsen rapidly:
“I stopped getting out of bed. I stopped eating. I obsessed about suicide options. I wrote goodbye letters.”
Fearing for her health, she ignored the conventional wisdom and approached one of her bosses at the company to frankly discuss her issues—and his encouraging response was life-changing.
“Matt didn’t mention my performance at all,” she wrote. “The conversation was quickly focused on my well-being and health, and the team’s willingness to work with me during my low points.”
Even better, their conversation sparked an office-wide dialogue about mental illnesses, with others sharing their own stories and receiving training on how to recognize and deal with a co-worker’s disorder.
Parker has thrived in the positive work environment, and has become a vocal proponent of mental health support in the office, giving a talk at Oakland, California’s AlterConf.
But Parker’s story really took off when she Tweeted this recent email exchange with her CEO:
After Parker casually informed her coworkers that she was taking two days for her mental health, her CEO reached out and praised her for helping to de-stigmatize mental sick days.
With her CEO’s permission, she posted their exchange on Twitter, hoping to spread the good example with the world. It quickly sparked a social media conversation.
Many faced similar struggles and found inspiration in the story:
Some questioned the need to distinguish mental health days from sick days in the first place, to which Madalyn explained her reasoning:
And others just lamented their own company’s less-progressive mental health policies:
And the CEO himself has also taken part in the conversation.
After his response went viral, he took to Medium to write his own post elaborating on his values, arguing that corporate health care was far behind the times, especially when it comes to mental illness.
“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance,” he wrote.
“When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”
What can companies, and their employers, learn from this story?
You can take the advice of the subjects themselves, for starters. In Madalyn’s article, she offers some guidelines for a healthy work environment, including positive corporate values and flexible work schedule.
Likewise, as a CEO Ben recommends expressing positive gratitude to teammates and being accommodating to their mental health needs.
But the big takeaway from the story: simply be honest about mental illness with your company. Doing so literally saved Madalyn’s life, influenced her corporate culture and inspired countless others.
While your instincts might say to suffer silently, you might be happily surprised by how your employers respond to your needs. And if they don’t, maybe consider finding a company that does, because they’re out there.