The extreme stress that comes with working in corporate finance can take a toll on anyone. Add in a serious mental health condition and each professional challenge seems insurmountable, something I know firsthand.
Given the stigma attached to mental illness, I kept my struggles to myself. When symptoms would flare up, I managed to stay calm, bottle up the emotions long enough to get through the day, and then crash when I got home. If the depression or suicidal thoughts got too bad, I would take sick days. This technique worked. I excelled in my career, but it came at the expense of my family, friends, and overall health. My professional life changed dramatically in 2017, when I was given the opportunity to finally end the silence and come out at work as someone living with a mental illness. With my employer’s support, I told my story in an article and video interview with the CEO of my division, which was published globally to a potential audience of over 300K employees. My message was simple: I have bipolar disorder, it doesn’t define me or my ability to perform on the job, and it’s time we all start talking about mental health. It was an awesome experience, culminating in a memorable fist bump with the top executive of my organization after I promised to smile more.
The response from my colleagues following my presentation was telling. Comments like “you’re so brave” flooded my inbox. They were right: publicly disclosing my bipolar diagnosis at a Fortune 20 company meant risking my business career, my friends, and my livelihood. It shouldn’t be this way.
Mental illness isn’t some rare disease afflicting a few unlucky souls. In fact, one in five U.S. adults experience a mental health condition each year. Extrapolated to the U.S. labor force, over 30 million workers are dealing with a mental illness. COVID-19 has introduced additional stressors, including risk of contagion, perception of safety, stigma and social exclusion, quarantine and confinement, financial loss, and job insecurity. On top of that, the pandemic has disproportionally affected the mental health of caregivers, essential workers, and people of color.
Unfortunately, 8 in 10 workers say stigma prevents them from seeking treatment. Untreated mental health conditions can have devastating effects on employees in the form of lost wages and burdensome medical expenses, and employers in the form of job turnover, reduced productivity, absences due to sickness, and greater utilization of costly health insurance and disability benefits. Less tax revenue due to unemployment and increased use of public services can have implications on the state and federal level as well.
Simply stated: we are facing a mental health crisis of epidemic proportions. Given how widespread and complex this crisis is, what can we do? While there is no easy fix, there is one action we can all take to begin healing: start the conversation. If you’re an employee, check on your co-workers, share your mental health needs with your manager, and ask for support. If you’re an employer, create a culture where mental health can be talked about openly, invest in mental health benefits, and communicate any resources available to employees. If you’re a public official, consider the role that policy can play in improving worker mental health by supporting legislation and funding to assist businesses and their employees.
Sharing my story at work changed my life. If we all do our part in normalizing the conversation on mental health, then stories like mine won’t be rare and worthy of exceptional praise. We celebrate Mental Health Month each May, but mental health should be addressed and tended to year-round. Let’s work together to make the United States a nation where everyone can bring their full selves to work each day, building a more resilient workforce, stronger business community, and brighter future.
About the Author
Mark Simon is a Master of Public Health student at UNC Chapel Hill. He is the Founder and President of a mental health speaking and consulting business, Mark Simon Says LLC and works for the Carolina Center for Total Worker Health and Well-being. Mark is also currently an Intern with the APA Foundation Center for Workplace Mental Health.