On a recent morning, an employee came up to me. This employee was having either a panic attack or an anxiety attack (wasn’t sure which), and needed to go take a mental health day. “Of course,” I said. I canceled a meeting we had planned and put this person’s assignments on hold. My focus was to make sure they were okay.
This was not the first time that a member of my team has taken a mental health day, and there’s a reason my employees feel comfortable doing so: I’ve done it myself. Instead of simply calling out “sick,” I’ve explicitly told my staff that I needed, and was taking, a day for my mental health.
The journey that got me to this point was a long one. Several years ago, I would never have admitted having any mental challenges. And, sadly, I might have even silently judged other people negatively for having them.
I thought about this recently when Mental Health America published a disturbing but unsurprising statistic. In a survey of nearly 10,000 people, 55 percent agreed with the statement “I am afraid of getting punished for taking a day off to attend to my mental health.”
This finding comes at a time when Americans are feeling more chronic stress, worry and anger, according to Gallup. In fact, Americans are now among the most stressed people in the world. The National Institute of Mental Health warns that stress carries mental health risks. Nearly 47 million U.S. adults—19 percent of the adult population—suffer from a mental illness.
Research in recent years even suggests that “almost everyone will develop at least one diagnosable mental disorder at some point in their life”—and that overall, the mental health of people across the United States may have declined over the past 20 years.
Businesses have not only a moral but also a financial incentive to make the mental health of their employees a priority. According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy $1 trillion a year in lost productivity. And Aetna reported recently that companies’ annual expenses for mental health care are rising twice as fast as they are for all other medical expenses.
There’s no question that teaching employees healthy habits can help change workplace culture around these issues. But my experience shows that the biggest, most important step business leaders can take is to open up about our own mental health in an honest way. This is particularly true for those of us in the C-suite. Ultimately, it’s the only way to make clear to our employees that they are safe to do the same.
Unfortunately, bosses often have a very tough time confiding to anyone at all about their mental health struggles. As one psychologist told CNN, "A lot of CEOs are confident they can manage on their own and they slip into overdrive."
Even if “executive stress”—the idea that business leaders are under more strain—is a myth, no leader wants to be seen as weak, or to have people question their decisions based on a concern about their mind. So the stigmas around mental health challenges can prevent leaders from opening up.
It took an epiphany for me to change my ways. After a childhood filled with traumatic bullying, I became career-obsessed. When I achieved my biggest professional goal of becoming a CMO at the age of 29 and still couldn’t feel happy, I realized something was wrong.
As I delved into therapy, I came to realize that I had ignored my own depression and anxiety because I was convinced they were forms of weakness. So I did a proverbial “180.” I began not only embracing mental health, but being open about it in the workplace. I include my therapy sessions on my calendar for everyone to see. I tell people about this journey.
A few months ago, I told my direct reports, “Sorry for the late notice, but I’m canceling my meetings for today as I need to take a mental health day.” Their responses were purely positive and supportive.
That helped open the door. Increasingly, my employees and people from outside my department have come to speak with me about what they’re going through. I also hear from people at other companies all the time wanting to discuss their struggles.
No one, at any business, should feel afraid to take a mental health day. And no one should ever be punished for doing so (and if you are, it might be a sign to quit your job). As executives, we already have enough challenges before us. Let’s not allow this to be one of them.