As if being human isn’t complicated enough, most of us also have to navigate the world of work where we’re forced to leave the crap we carry at the company door. And that’s just accepting the job. It’s another thing to respond to the growing demand to bring our whole selves to work.
To be open about your mental health at work—by choice, or when your hand is forced by external circumstances—is a tough challenge to bear. We worry about the consequences and hope we’ll get some support in the journey. But what are the rewards and risks of talking about our mental health at work?
We talked to a tenured Googler who spoke up and out about mental health internally, the right-hand to a CEO of a small business who prioritized her wellbeing, a new HubSpotter who took a leave and got promoted in their first year, and an HR executive who balances caring for her own mental health and others.
After reading this, I hope you’ll continue the conversation around your own mental health at work—at least with yourself to establish boundaries, combat burnout, feel balanced, and more. But perhaps also with others in your life to consider how your work is impacting you, and how you’re impacting it.
When your struggles begin to intersect with your work, there are often signals you can spot. Consider a few warning signs to watch for:
Sudden changes can prompt challenges. When Janae Estill, account executive at HubSpot, became a single mother overnight, she felt submerged. “I quickly felt overwhelmed with my personal life and trying to navigate work at the same time,” the account executive at Hubspot says. “I remember trying to navigate it alone, kind of hiding in and out of meetings [and being] really quiet.”
Reactivity is a mark of stress. Nicholas Whitaker, a people programs lead at Google, knew he was facing a challenge when he started feeling reactive to feedback he got from management. “I found myself in a hotel room in Japan having what I thought was a heart attack, which actually ended up being a very intense panic attack,” he says. “And that particular moment keyed me into the idea that the ways of being that I had up until that point were no longer serving me.”
Perfectionism and paranoia. Jenn Toro, chief people officer at Virtus, understands how learned behaviors from childhood can impact your work now. “Because of my high-achieving, high-functioning anxiety tendencies, I was progressing really far, really fast, but inside my body felt a mess and I had stomach aches. I had knots in my throat. When people would be in closed-door meetings, I would question whether people were talking about me. Internally, I was drowning in fear that I was unsafe in some way.”
Repeated cycles. Jenny Weeden, VP of people operations at Accelity, identified her cycles and set new expectations about her availability. “Every six or so months I would go through these cycles of major burnout and I was getting to my breaking point. I was not as positive. I was making more mistakes and being short with people. I dug a hole for myself in setting the expectation that 10, 11, or 12 hours of work each day was realistic for me.”
Our thought partners reflected on their best advice for being open about your mental health at work.
- Be a part of the change you want to see: “I became much more vocal about my own personal journey. I started probably most concretely with my loop, my specific team talking in small groups and in some larger groups. And then the word started to get out that I was somebody who was willing to talk about these things, and folks from various different teams across the company would call me to do Google Wellbeing Sessions—really a kind of a confessional about my own mental health journey and experience and breathing in some of the mindfulness and journaling practices and the success that I had with therapy as a way to illustrate to people what’s possible.” - Nicholas Whitaker
- Good things can happen: “When I came back (from leave), instead of being fearful of my job, I was actually promoted. They recognized the hard work I had done up until that healing point. I came back just as strong, so I was able to get promoted. I also was able to work with our Black@INBOUND internal team on some marketing needs and I won the Heart Award in October. If you’re having a hard time, it’s okay—get the help you need, but come back even stronger.” - Janae Estill
- Quiet the imposter: “One thing that really helped me in my mental health journey is killing my imposter. And I know “killing” is a charged word, but I have had to interact with this imposter for a long time. But, I know somebody else is going to take on the role or responsibility that I want. So yeah, she doesn’t come around much anymore and it’s really helped build my confidence.” - Jenny Weeden
- Setting boundaries and sharing what’s right for you: “Trust your infinite potential to heal. And if that includes being open, then great. It might mean other things. It might mean that you’re not necessarily open, and that’s the right journey for you because everybody has their own experience and journey to go through. Don’t outsource your power to other people, practitioners, employers, leaders.” - Jenn Toro
- Know it’s okay to consider your reputation: “When I took my leave of absence, a big component to that experience was shame—knowing that I wasn’t showing up in a way that I felt that I could and I was really fearful of the repercussions of being branded as somebody who has mental health struggles. I think it needs to be okay to have those feelings and to be able to express those. It’s not necessarily something that’s permanent and you’ll find your path, you’ll find the level and degree with which you can speak about these things in a way that isn’t harmful and that feels authentic.” - Nicholas Whitaker
- Accept support: “I was surrounded by tons of support. My manager, his manager, other leaders, and they gave me resources, you know, modern health and, you know, advocated for talking to a therapist. And it was in that time that I realized I truly needed some time away from work. And I was a new employee. So nerve racking, like, am I going to lose my job? I just remember having this feeling like I’m going to be a burden to this team. And that’s the opposite of what I got. They just rallied around me and said, ‘You are a valued member of our team. We want you here. We want you to be your best self and what can we do to support you?’” - Janae Estill
A great place to start understanding how your work and life can better integrate is to increase your self-awareness and advocacy. Know what you want and ask for it when you need it. Here’s how our thought partners have done that recently:
Ask for feedback in a way that works for you. “I had to have a conversation with a colleague saying, ‘Constructive feedback is great, but I really need you to give me feedback about what I’m doing well from time to time because I was telling myself the story that I’m a failure and I’m useless otherwise.’” - Nicholas Whitaker
Listen to your body. “As I sat down with a CEO recently, I said, ‘I just want to let you know that my nervous system is feeling very activated. So, I’m not totally sure what that is. I want to be open about it because our relationship is new and I don’t want you to think that something about this meeting that’s creating that energy for me. I am just aware that it feels very, very activated today.’ And he said, okay. I think it helped to set the landscape of what we were experiencing together.” - Jenn Toro
Turn your camera off. “Needing to be on camera 24-7 and kind of feel judged by how you look, was causing me some anxiety. So I said, ‘Is there a way that I can go off camera and do my job well?’ And yes, I can. I call myself a radio deejay because I can still bring all the energy and fun, but I don’t have that stigma of getting ready for the camera. The whole thing is to remove the weight.” - Janae Estill
Block your time. “I am a morning person. I want my mornings for me. It’s really important for me to come into the work ready to take on the day. There were times where we’d have earlier meetings, but when you’re jumping straight into a meeting it can be jarring. I started blocking off time in my calendar and I said, Please ask me before scheduling during these times.’” - Jenny Weeden
There is risk and reward in being open about your mental health at work. Those who have lived it recommend a balanced approach ripe with boundaries, care for self, and adjustments as needed. Happy healing!
Send any news, comments, or tips for being open about mental health at work to firstname.lastname@example.org. This edition of The Memo was brought to you by:
⚖️ Our editor, Anna Oakes, who is judging if the pendulum of talking-openly-about-your-mental-health-at-work needs to swing towards being more open? Or less open?
🎶 Quartz at Work’s deputy editor, Gabriela Riccardi, who’s rebranding as a camera-off radio deejay.