Why Employers Are the Last To Know When Employees Are Experiencing Mental Health Challenges

An interview on the reasons and solutions with Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company.

A Deloitte study found 95% of participants who have had to take time off due to workplace stress felt unable to give their employer the real reason.

While many people understand the current stigma around mental health and culture of work keeps many employees from sharing their mental health challenges in the workplace, there are two main reasons underlying this issue that Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company, and her team discovered.

Claire was a speaker at Mind Share Partners’ inaugural “Mental Health at Work Mini-Conference” in May. “Once a business leader understands the two main reasons why employees are not transparent about their mental health in the workplace,” Claire explained, “they can clear actions to create a culture of openness and honesty to remedy the stigma.”

Learn what the two research-backed reasons are that contribute to a lack of transparency around mental health in the workplace, and what leaders can do to solve this in this interview.

Q: Why did you start Know Your Company and how does it contribute to your understanding around employee feedback and company culture?

Claire: To start, Know Your Company is a software tool that helps managers and business owners get to know their employees better and become better leaders. I started this company because I was an employee before and found myself at a company where I felt the CEO at the time didn’t know his team and wasn’t the best leader. I felt like I couldn’t speak up and give feedback in m role on that team, so I quit my job.

I started a consulting practice working with CEOs to help them become better by getting to know their companies more. My first client was Basecamp. At the time, they felt like they didn’t know their company as well as they should, and not only did I have a consulting engagement with them, but found out they were building a software prototype, which is now Know Your Company. Once Basecamp built the software, it starting gaining traction and they asked me if I would be the CEO of Know Your Company. Now, I lead Know Your Company with Basecamp as a partner. Today, we help over 15,000 people in 25 countries get to know each other better and become better leaders through open feedback and asking the right questions.

Q: From a workplace mental health perspective, what are the reasons you’ve found that cause employers and managers to often be the last to know when an employee is experiencing a mental health challenge?

Claire: Obviously the associated stigma has left the topic a taboo in the workplace for quite some time. Beyond that, from the research we’ve done at Know Your Company, typically an employee chooses to not speak at work about mental health for two main reasons.

The first reason, and not so surprising one, is because there is a fear around what the repercussions will be from sharing. “Am I going to be viewed differently?” “Am I going to be passed up for promotion?” “Am I going to be treated differently on the team?” The fear associated with these questions and more plays a big part in covering their experience because in any work relationship there is always a power dynamic. So, whether it’s intentional or not for the business owner or manager, they are viewed in a position of power, and there is no incentive for an employee to speak up and put their “neck on the line,” especially when the issue is taboo.

I’m sure many of the readers are going to say, “Yes, fear is an obvious reason.” But the second reason is much less obvious, and quite fascinating.

The second reason is the feeling of futility. This is the sense that even if an employee were to say something, that nothing would change.

In our research, we found futility is 1.8 times more powerful than fear as a reason for why employees don’t speak up.

What this means is if an employee stated “Hey, I would like to take a personal day off for mental health,” they would feel like they wouldn’t get it. Another example is a belief that if they were to suggest to their company to provide resources around mental health, the company isn’t going to do anything about it. Understanding fear and futility is key, as these two things are most likely affecting your team whether it’s mental health or another company culture based topic.

Q: How can leaders help ease fear and futility in their staff and encourage openness around mental health at their workplace?

Claire: It’s about creating a culture of openness and honesty. The way you do that as a leader is what I call “going first.”

If you want your team to be open and honest about mental health issues with you, you have to be open with them first, and show some vulnerability. This can be as straightforward as admitting you have experienced mental health challenges in the past or saying “Hey, I am actually planning on taking a personal day for mental health myself.”

It also doesn’t have to be as strong of words. It could be as simple as going to your team and saying “I know that we’ve been working extremely hard, and I’ve seen the extra hours everyone is putting in, but I also want us to be cognizant as a team of our mental health.” Going first as a leader sharing you are personally concerned about and invested in the mental well being of the team sets the tone.

The next thing you can do is to simply ask questions. I’m sure this is popular advice in a day and age where many companies are issuing employee feedback surveys, and it’s popular to have “one-on-ones” with your team. But how often do we ask questions in either format where it’s directly about mental health?

How often do we ask, “Do you need to take a personal day off?” or “Is there anything we in the company can be doing better to support your mental health?” Or even something like “Are you afraid of anything at work?” We’ve found through Know Your Company that 67% of employees are afraid of something at work. We've also found that 69% of employees say there is something holding them back from doing their best work. You will notice that all of these questions are specific, not generalized. You will not get answers as a leader around mental health at your workplace if you aren’t asking these questions directly.

The last thing leaders can do is to actually do something. Act on something small to start. At the end of the day, talk is cheap. If you want to combat the sense of futility employees feel you have to walk the talk. This can look like having real company policies around being able to take a mental health day, say once per month. You can fund resources that are specific to mental health like workshops and health coverage for therapy. Why these actions are so powerful is that it’s showing that you are actually willing to do something to solve the issue.

For smaller organizations who are more budget constrained, and want to act but lack the financial resources, they can simply have a positive response when people do speak up about mental health. A leader can share words of encouragement when an employee is open about what they are going through.

Q: Continuing off of the last thing you said, you interviewed a CEO who went viral for supporting his employee’s mental health. Can you share that story, and what you believe leaders can take away from this?

Claire: There is a CEO I interviewed on our interview series called “The Heartbeat” named Ben Congleton, the CEO of Olark. Ben had an email that went viral where he had responded to an employee who said they would be taking a personal day off for mental health. Ben responded by thanking her for helping “cut through the stigma” of mental health. His response was incredibly affirming in the organization at Olark and to a broader society. The employee shared his response on Twitter, and it went viral for those reasons.

If you as a leader can affirm, encourage, and act in a small way, then you can create the openness you are looking for and people will feel comfortable talking to you.

One thing we as leaders always forget is that we are bosses. Our words are magnified, and anything we say is going to be modeled throughout the organization. If you want your organization’s culture to be a certain way, it starts with you, the leader. If you want your culture to be more open around mental health issues, you have to be explicit about it. Ben’s story is such a great reminder of how powerful it can be when the message comes from the top. If it was a co-worker or manager the reaction wouldn’t have been quite the same. The reason why that email and Ben’s words became viral because it was from the CEO. When it comes from leadership there is an opportunity to really move the lever forward in an organization.

Q: Given your experience with companies, why do you think the U.S. is still lagging behind other countries in supporting mental health in their workplace culture?

Claire: My observation is that businesses are slow to change unless there is a capital cost to them. In other words, companies are never motivated to change unless there is a true financial reason for them to change.

Mental illness and substance abuse costs employers an estimated $225.8 billion each year in the U.S. The largest indirect cost of mental illness comes in the form of decreased performance due to absenteeism, or regularly missing work, and presenteeism, or working while sick. The incentive isn’t apparent because businesses don’t see the long-term effects.

Hopefully, we will start to see a change because the talent pool is so competitive these days and if you want to hire the best, you better offering these benefits because you’re competing with companies who are going to be offering services and an environment where employees mental health is supported. I believe soon businesses not invested in mental health will see the financial cost and talent cost for their business.

Q: Final question, have you as a CEO every experienced mental health challenges and would be willing to share about the experience?

Claire: It’s rare to find any CEO or founder who hasn’t experienced a form of mental distress. Obviously, there is a spectrum of what that experience is. I’m not going to claim I've experienced a deep level of depression or anxiety compared to my peers, but I definitely will say I experienced quite a bit of anxiety around becoming a new CEO.

Taking over Know Your Company was my third venture, but it was a high profile one, and a spinoff of Basecamp with tens of millions of followers. Having clients like Airbnb and Kickstarter put a lot of initial pressure on myself to perform and make sure we didn't let anyone down. I was barely into my mid-twenties, and luckily after a year of feeling extremely anxious, I took some time off to re-evaluate and take care of my mental health. I started meditation, I have a therapist, I do yoga, and I am now very conscious of my mental health.

If you compared my mental state from then to now it’s a night and day difference. For anyone who is a first-time founder or a new CEO, don’t accept mental distress as part of the job. It may be common, but it doesn’t have to be defining. When you take care of your mental health, you will perform better. When I took care of my mental health, we did better as a company.

If you want more, you can watch Claire’s talk from Mind Share Partners’ “Mental Health at Work Mini-Conference” on this topic here. 

Mental Health Awareness Month, Mental Health at Work, Leadership, Human Resources, Business

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