The stigma of mental illness never made much sense to Ben Congleton, CEO of live-chat software maker Olark.
He’d grown up with kids whose lives improved after they received treatment for their illnesses. He knows one in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness in a given year. He’s always understood mental health is as important as physical health.
So he was shocked when his views on mental health went viral in a tweet last summer – and revealed just how taboo the topic is, especially in the workplace.
Last June, Olark staffer Madalyn Parker emailed her team to let them know she was “taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health.” Congleton replied to Parker privately, thanking her for not only taking the days but for being open about it: “You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
Parker tweeted the exchange with Congleton’s permission, and it garnered tens of thousands of retweets, likes, and responses.
“Madalyn and I received lots of notes of support, but what surprised and saddened me was how many people commented that this is rare,” Congleton says. “So many people told me they would fear judgment, or even that they would be fired. It was an eye-opener for me about this broad societal challenge that we all need to overcome.” Congleton published a brief note on Medium in response to the attention, encouraging employers to express gratitude to their teams and reflect on their organizations’ values.
Below, he shares with Glassdoor the three steps managers can take to engender a culture of openness, promote mental health, and support team members.
“I wish there were some magic words to say, but it doesn’t happen overnight,” Congleton says. “It’s about consciously and constantly creating an environment of trust, which takes work – but it’s worth it in so many ways.”
Create a safe psychological space.
Olark’s structure is one that inherently requires trust and flexibility; managers can’t hover over desks because the team is fully remote, with staffers across three continents. So if staffers hit the gym for two hours in the middle of the day and get their work done in the evening, that’s just fine by Olark management.
Congleton understands that flex scheduling – or other Olark perks like unlimited vacation – may not be possible for every organization or every position, establishing values of underlying trust is what’s key. “You can focus on output and outcomes, measuring not the employee’s exact hours but their impact on the business,” he explains.
When your team feels that they’re being judged for their work and appreciated for a job well done, “incredible things happen,” Congleton says. “Once you have that strong cultural framework in place, people feel trusted and supported so they’re willing to be open.” That’s why Olark’s frank discussions about mental health challenges happened “without being super deliberate,” as Congleton puts it.
As an added bonus, Congleton finds the culture of trust breeds higher performance. “People are more willing to take risks and to stretch themselves, and we’ve found they perform even better for you. When people are happier, their lives are better and their work reflects it. It’s a win-win that just makes sense."
Model the openness you want to see in your staffers.
As a leader, you set the tone for acceptable and expected behavior -- so if you want your team to feel free to share, open up a bit yourself. That doesn’t mean you need to dish about every detail of your personal life. A friend of Congleton’s, for example, “started every management meeting with a little game: ‘If you really knew me you would know…’ and he’d talk about something going on with him that was new, or something hanging over his head. Childcare got messed up, traffic was frustrating, whatever. And then they’d go around the room.”
The game inspired Congleton for two key reasons: “It normalizes that behavior of sharing what you’re bringing to the job in that moment, which is huge. And it’s done in a tactical way: You’re not putting someone on the spot, just allowing them to open up just a little bit in a manner that makes them feel comfortable.”
Modeling behavior extends to self-care, too. “Depending on the culture in an organization, people might be concerned that taking a few days off -- even after a super-busy time – is implied weakness,” Congleton explains. “That’s a great opportunity to demonstrate it as a leader: ‘Hey, team, that last sprint took it all out of me. I’m going to take an extra day to reflect and recharge, and I recommend you do too.’ That speaks volumes.”
Proactively share resources, and seek expert help when needed.
Just like physical health, mental health is complex. Avail yourself of resources like Congleton’s favorite: Open Sourcing Mental Illness, which focuses on changing stigma within the tech community but offers guidelines and research that are applicable across sectors. If you find a great article extolling the benefits of taking a mental health day, fully unplugging while on vacation, etc., email it to your team with a quick note about why you think it’s important.
And if a staffer is going through mental health issues, tap internal resources like HR for assistance. “Serious mental health challenges are serious health challenges, period,” Congleton notes. “Your typical manager is not going to be an expert in mental health, and that’s OK.”
These three steps aren’t necessarily linear, and they can’t be treated like a simple checklist, Congleton explains.
“Prioritizing trust, gratitude, and caring about a staffer’s whole self is not a one-and-done endeavor,” he says. “We’re talking about changing work culture and ingrained societal stigma. That progress happens only with more dialogue and more action.”