In an age where organizations celebrate history and awareness months with greater visibility, and in most cases, sincerity, it feels safer to bring your whole self to work. As Mental Health Awareness Month winds down, I find myself reflecting on my own journey, one I continue to navigate daily – my diagnosed bipolar disorder.
Last May, serendipitously, I spoke with a colleague/friend who is an outspoken champion of transparency around mental health at work. She was/is in the midst of raising funds (and visibility) for Mental Health Awareness month and is writing a book about how she positions her own bipolar disorder diagnosis as a superpower. She encouraged me in 2021 to support her efforts, share my experiences. This forced me to admit that I have mostly hidden my mood disorder diagnosis for fear that it might hurt my reputation and by extension, my businesses.
I’ve never been a private person. People around me understand that there is practically no topic I would hesitate to discuss. Despite my inclination toward excessive personal sharing, there’s really only a small circle of friends and co-workers who know I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder almost 20 years ago. People outside that group don’t know that I see a therapist and psychiatrist regularly and take medication to manage my brain chemistry. Every May shines a bright light on my inner conflict: How can I advocate genuinely for all people to bring their full selves to work, when I am not yet comfortable or confident bringing my whole self to work?
Out of necessity, I’ve been pretty transparent with my team at C2, and most of that team has been with me for 15+ years. They know and support me and generally recognize when I am struggling. I’ve asked them to help me recognize when I’m veering into a manic or depressive state. It’s not their responsibility, but often they see the signs before I do. A simple inquiry from any of them, “Are you on your meds?” or “are you sleeping ok?” or “Hey, you seem a bit more wound up than usual, are you OK?” can be just what I need to snap me back to reality and help me figure out what I need to tweak to get back on track: better manage my meds, get more sleep, exercise or see my therapist. There’s a lot of power in asking, are you ok?
The behaviors of either a manic or depressive episode greatly impact my performance, or lack thereof, in every aspect of my life. Yet it’s STILL incredibly difficult for me to ask for help or disclose my struggles. And I’m the boss. So I can ONLY IMAGINE the hurdes people face if they are living with an undiagnosed illness or are aware and managing their mental health, but haven’t disclosed it in a work setting. I have difficulty articulating how my own bipolar manifests and was profoundly touched by the performance of Anne Hathaway in the 30 minute episode of HBO’s Modern Love. It provides a glimpse into one person’s bipolar disorder experience which resonated deeply with me. You can read a bit about the episode here.
TRUST is everything. Vulnerability and empathy from leaders can make a tremendous difference for an employee who needs accommodation, while also providing a model for desired behavior from the rest of the team/company culture. How a culture manifests belonging and inclusion differs based on an organization’s priorities. I found this article, Since It’s OK to Talk About Mental Health, What Should Employers Say and Do? a good place to start. I appreciate having a roadmap for leaders and teams to begin to offer support and create a safe environment that can lead to more productive outcomes for both individuals managing a mood disorder or other mental health-related challenges and the business.
The last two years have seen an increase in mental health issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis and George Floyd’s murder. The two events transformed conversations and priorities around fostering inclusion, belonging and accommodation at work. Tools that facilitate the journey abound. Mike Robbins’ books are really accessible, offering tangible actions to increase trust within a team setting.
I’m grateful for an awareness month that encourages me to explore my own situation and, by doing so, pushes me to more deeply consider the needs of individuals, teams, employees and employers as they navigate the complexities of mental health issues and mood disorders in the workplace.
Some of the Awareness Month efforts I saw and liked:
The Power Of Okay https://youtu.be/CC4QzwlmhxQ