Openness about mental health in the workplace is great — but so is privacy: Teitel
As important as it is to chip away at the stigma, it would be a mistake to allow privacy around health issues to suffer in the name of fighting that stigma.
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One of the most interesting stories to go viral in recent days involves a web developer in Ann Arbor, Michigan named Madalyn Parker who was dealing with some mental health issues and needed a break from work. However, unlike so many of us in this situation Parker didn’t tell colleagues she had the flu, a bad back, or food poisoning. Instead, she told the truth: “Hey Team,” Parker wrote in an email to her co-workers, “I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.”
And what do you know: Parker’s boss, Ben Congleton, the CEO of the company where she works, reacted like a total mensch. “Hey Madalyn,” Congleton responded, “I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health — I can’t believe this is not a standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
Parker shared this email exchange on Twitter and the internet went wild with praise for her and her standup boss. And why not? It was brave of Parker to reveal to her co-workers that she struggles with mental health and it was decent of Congleton to respond positively to her candidness. Both of them have no doubt chipped away at the massive stigma that surrounds talking openly about mental health.
But despite the enormous respect I have for Parker and her decision to be candid about such a delicate issue, I hope this candidness about mental health in the office doesn’t catch on.
I don’t say this because I object to talking openly about sensitive personal subjects with colleagues, or because I don’t believe mental health issues are serious. On the contrary, I deal with depression and I take an antidepressant everyday. I say this because as much as I too would like to chip away at the stigma around mental health, I’d hate to see the value we place on privacy around health issues suffer in the name of fighting that stigma.
As commendable as the recent public push to open up about mental health is, I wish these efforts focused less on personal confession — “I’ve struggled with X issue” — and more on the broader truth: for example, hammering home the fact that mental health is health, period, and employers should treat it as such.
For me, the problem pivots on this point. You wouldn’t tell your boss you’re staying home to work on your “physical health.” You’d simply say “I’m ill,” or “I’m not feeling great,” statements that happen to apply to depression and the common cold equally. I’m concerned that when we go out of our way to name the specific breed of health issue we suffer from, even if doing so erodes a stigma around that issue, we send a message that confession is more enlightened than confidentiality; that “opening up” is the framework for how a modern office should function.
Frankly, I don’t want to open up, because opening up implies that mental health must be singled out for validation. Yes, I mentioned that I deal with depression. And yes, I’d like my employer to be understanding and accommodating if my health issue is especially debilitating one week. But I’d rather the norm not shift to a place where it’s standard to divulge to my boss when my reason for staying home is specifically mental health-related. Or worse, why it is so. Can you imagine? “Hey boss, those self-defeating voices in my head are really loud this morning, I think I might have to file my column when they subside. Could be in an hour, could be when I’m 65.”
Of course, I don’t honestly believe it will come to this, nor do I think Madalyn Parker was anything but brave for being frank with her officemates.
But I do believe where health is concerned, that privacy in the workplace is paramount. Employees should know they can share as little as possible about their health and receive the same support as colleagues who pour their hearts out.
In the end, the most profound and destigmatizing message on this matter will arrive, not from employees who suffer from mental health issues, but from employers who out of the blue, unprompted by an unwell subordinate, make it known that “I’m not feeling well, I’m going to take the day off” is a totally valid statement, no matter where in the body a person’s illness takes root.