“What do you do about your disability?” I was surprised by the question from my college career counselor. As they peered over my shoulder while I completed my career aptitude test, I looked myself up and down for a sign of what was guiding her question. Finally, I took a deep breath and asked, “what disability?”
“You have dyslexia,” she said flatly.
I was thrilled to hear those three words. Now I knew why I struggled in school, couldn’t spell well, and processed information differently than everyone around me. Decades later, those words were my first step on a journey to find my voice as a vulnerable, authentic leader.
As I rose in my HR career, I was encouraged to cloak my dyslexia to improve my promotion chances. Having to hide how I work and process information was stressful, required a lot of mental energy to fit in, and held me back in school and work. I couldn’t be myself. And I certainly didn’t feel like I belonged.
Belonging is a key to mental health. When people can’t be themselves, they waste time, energy, and effort trying to blend in. In a recent UKG survey of more than 3,400 people across 10 countries, employees say their boss has more impact on their mental health than their primary care physician (51%) and their therapist (41%). What’s more, bosses have the same impact on mental health as our spouses and partners at 69%.
While working my way up to the C-suite, I worked with an executive coach alongside five other up-and-comers. On a retreat, our coach had us meditate for about an hour. She asked us to visualize where we wanted to be as an executive and how we wanted to be. She told us to think about the details, not just the title. Think about the people we interact with. Think about what we’re wearing. Think about what we’re feeling. Visualize what’s on your office walls.
I closed my eyes, and I had purple hair. I was wearing a business-casual dress but rocking my high-top sneaks. I visualized a painting on my wall that I had yet to paint. I saw colleagues smiling at me and being excited to see me. We would hug because I’m a hugger. I laughed every day at work, and people were thankful for me, and I would learn every day with them.
When the meditation ended, the coach asked one simple question, “Why can’t you do that today?”
That weekend, I dyed my hair, painted the picture I saw in my head, and have worn sneakers every day to work since. I became more and more open about my dyslexia. I saw it as my superpower. I laughed more, and people laughed more with me. Hugs came. And I was fulfilled.
Then something magical happened: uncloaking myself had a tremendous impact on the people around me.
After a town hall meeting, when I openly talked about my dyslexia (with my purple hair and Chucks on), an employee approached me to say hi. As she removed her cardigan, her arms were revealed and I noticed her beautiful tattoos. “Thank you for being so real,” she said. “I thought I had to hide my artwork—a part of me—in front of my colleagues and bosses. I don’t have to hide anymore. I can be me.”
Think about the mental energy and the stress that cloaking the real you creates. Could you perform at your best if you spent your day pretending to be something you’re not? How would your mental state be impacted?
Some people believe you need to build trust before getting vulnerable. However, being open about our own stories and struggles is precisely how we form relationships built on trust.
With trust and authenticity, people look forward to your uniqueness, and you celebrate theirs. Belonging feeds a healthy and productive workplace and empowers us to have more mental energy for other pursuits, be it our personal passions, activities with our family and friends, or problem-solving at work.
Once you’ve built a culture of belonging and your people start opening up to each other, what can leaders and companies do when someone discloses a mental illness or struggle?
Get real about it. Our survey found that 90% of HR and C-suite leaders believe that working for their company positively impacts their employees’ mental health—yet only half of employees agree. 20% of employees say their job harms their mental health, and at least 1 out of 3 workers always or often feel stressed about work (40%).
People are struggling in silence. Leaders need to avoid burying their heads in the sand and make mental health a topic of discussion within the team. Don’t force conversation, but make it okay for people to have one. If you read an article on mental health, burnout, or work-related well-being, forward it to your team, give them your take, and open the door for anyone who wants to talk.
Lend an ear, not medical advice. Seven in 10 employees say they wish their manager would do more to support their mental health. Yet, if an employee discloses a mental health issue, avoid giving medical advice. Be careful not to push employees too hard for personal details, too. Leave that to the trained professionals. Let them know your door is open to continuing the conversation as needed. Dig into what can be done about their workload, schedule, roadblocks, or goals to help them navigate what they are going through.
Provide an empathetic voice. If you’re comfortable, be open about your feelings and personal struggles or experiences with mental health. You’ve already become an authentic leader, so take it to the next level. Don’t make the situation all about you, but give just enough info to show empathy for what they are going through. By expressing vulnerability yourself, you create a safe space for them. In turn, this will help you better understand how you can help.
Evangelize your company’s existing mental health resources. Do you know all the health and mental health resources your company offers? Probably not. While 93% of HR leaders say their company provides at least one program or resource specifically for mental health, only half of employees have used these resources. In addition, 70% say they wish their company would do more to support their mental health.
We must do more than merely sharing information. HR and people managers should team up to ensure employees leverage their resources, like EAPs and wellness coach resources. At UKG, we’ve created a wellness menu that employees can access for a complete list of available resources.
Model good behavior around time off. We found that 28% of employees take off only 1-2 days or 3-4 days at a time, and 85% of employees, 92% of HR Leaders, and 88% of the C-suite don’t use all of their allotted time off. Leaders preach that meaningful time off allows people to return rested, refreshed, and focused. Leaders should also model good behavior by taking time off and unplugging while away. When leaders are supposed to be offline and respond to work emails, it’s a bad signal to stressed employees.
Help leaders lead. Being a middle manager is the most complex job—and there’s a rising trend of people not wanting to lead anymore. People in the $100-200K salary band report feeling most unhappy at work, and more than half (57%) wish someone had warned them not to take their current job. These people drive results, implement new policies, and inspire their people. They are also the first line of defense for struggling employees. Organizations must ensure managers take care of their mental health first—similar to how airlines instruct us to put on our oxygen masks before helping others—by providing access to leader-specific resources.
By teaming with HR or the wellness team, companies can host manager-specific training sessions on mental health resources and guide navigating tough questions and conversations with direct reports. For example, at UKG, whenever there is a new initiative, we hold training for all people managers first, then for all employees, so leaders are equipped to provide guidance.
Throughout my career in HR, I’ve learned the best thing a leader can do to support employee mental health is to throw out the script and be human. We set the tone of the entire company, and when we lead with honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability, we create the right conditions for our people to do the same. When our people feel their best, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish together.
Pat Wadors serves as chief people officer (CPO) of UKG, a leading provider of HR, payroll, and workforce management solutions for all people. Before UKG, Pat served as CPO of Procore Technologies and has held multiple leadership roles at ServiceNow, LinkedIn, Plantronics, Inc., and Yahoo!