Why this CMO revealed his mental health issues to his team

When I took on a marketing manager position at a new company a few months ago, I wasted no time talking to my employees about my issues with anxiety and depression. The results have been tremendous.

To introduce myself, I organized “ask me anything” sessions. More recently, I made one when I first met my team in Brazil. It wasn’t long before they started asking me about mental health.

I shared the story of being bullied as a child and trying to bury all the trauma deep within my psyche as I got older. I explained that when I achieved a career goal of becoming a marketing director at 30, I looked around and couldn’t understand why I was unhappy. From the outside, it looked like everything should be fine. It was only then that I began to realize that professional success was no antidote to what I had to reckon with. So I went into labor – with therapy, medication, meditation, all that.

Sharing this with my employees helped open the floodgates. Some have started sharing their own stories. They talked about stress, struggles during the pandemic, and experience with mental illnesses. The conversation put our relationship on the right foot.

I have a global workforce, with employees in North and South America and Europe. As I met more and more teams, I engaged in similar and open conversations.

Fight the stigma

It has never been more important to make mental wellness something we can talk about without stigma. The World Health Organization reports that the pandemic has triggered a 25% increase in anxiety and depression. A report from Boston University last fall found that rates of depression in the United States tripled in early 2020 and continued to rise in 2021, affecting one in three American adults.

Stigma often prevents people from even recognizing their own psychological struggles. I used to think of these things as signs of weakness, so I ignored them. Companies can do a lot to help end these stigmas.

A McKinsey survey find that 79% of employees say an anti-stigma awareness campaign around mental wellness would be helpful, but only 23% of employers have one. “Additionally, while C-suite directed communications can be an effective tool to raise awareness of support and reduce mental health stigma, only a quarter of employers report using this channel,” the report said.

My experience shows that a “campaign” doesn’t have to be a complex undertaking. It can start with the opening of the frames. But this can be especially hard to do for C-suite people.

“The best leaders are sharers”

In a report for harvard business review, three researchers shared the results of an analysis they conducted on the leadership styles of executives. They found that “the best leaders are sharers,” which they define as those “who openly acknowledge their fears, stress, and other negative emotions.”

Sharing negative emotions can lessen the impact of those emotions on the leader; build empathetic relationships with employees; encourage others to open up; and help people overcome their own difficulties, they wrote. All of this has powerful results, “ultimately booster morale and performance throughout the organization.

Yet despite these benefits, many executives are hesitant to share, “driven by a widely held assumption that true leaders must always be ambitious and results-oriented, and that admitting negative emotions is a sign of weakness.”

If my experience proves anything, it’s that gathering the courage to open up to your own inner turmoil is worth the work. We should all normalize these challenges as just part of what it is to be human.

Of course, opening up to my new company, Gympass, may be easier than for executives at some other companies, since Gympass is all about welfare. But I’ve done similar things in previous companies that weren’t wellness-focused and had equally powerful results.

Of course, these kinds of conversations are just the beginning. Prioritizing employee well-being in an organization requires a series of steps. (See a list of essentials here.) If you’re looking to create a mental wellness program at work, this month presents a particularly good opportunity. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and organizations such as the Center for Workplace Mental Health, part of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, offer tool kits and resources.

There’s a lot of talk these days about how people should be able to bring their “whole selves” to work. The “whole self” includes the whole mind. When we embrace this and seize the opportunity to improve employee mental well-being, everyone wins.

About Stephen Ewing

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