Bernie Wong | Senior Associate, Mind Share Partners
Millennial and Generation-Z employees are leaving jobs due to mental health. According to Mind Share Partners’ “Mental Health at Work 2019” report, 50% of Millennial and 75% of Generation-Z workers reported having left a job due, at least in part, to mental health reasons, as compared with just 10% of their Baby Boomer counterparts. These findings are aligned with generational trends regarding awareness and acceptance around mental health—but this is only one interpretation.
Companies and business leaders are failing to establish organizational cultures that both support and sustain their employees. Unsupported mental health conditions result in clear losses to productivity, engagement, and retention, all of which cost U.S. businesses $16.8 billion annually. While many companies have begun offering mental health benefits, paid time off, Employee Assistance Programs, and occasional mental health days—which is actually an ineffective strategy—these resources do not transform the culture of work itself.
In order to curb the growing rates of attrition and burnout in U.S. workers due to unsupported mental health challenges, business leaders must drive mental health culture change within their companies.
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Modeling Next-Gen Leadership
Over the past few years, business leaders have begun to tell their personal stories about mental health.
In his feature on NBC News, Ryan Bonnici, Chief Marketing Officer of G2, shared: “I had kept my struggles a secret from everyone I worked with. I was convinced people would look down on me as damaged goods. That I would lose promotions. That competitors might use the information against me. It was only when I began doing the real work to improve my mental state that I realized other people may have felt the same shame and fear about their mental health.”
After realizing just how pervasive stigma surrounding mental health at work is, Bonnici decided to go public about his mental health journey. From showing his therapy appointments on his work calendar to his regular posts on LinkedIn that mention his therapy sessions right alongside his achievements, Bonnici has redefined what it means to manage mental health while being a successful leader.
Similarly, Emma McIlroy, cofounder and CEO of online fashion retailer Wildfang, has also shared her experience with the “dark, crappy moments” of depression, suicidal thoughts, and intense mental stress. Despite the prevailing narrative of entrepreneurship and success, the instability, financial setbacks, and isolation doesn’t come without a cost.
Based on her experience, McIlroy made a commitment: “I was going to be really real in every interview, at every event and with every platform I have. That might mean talking about the fact that I'm queer, that might mean talking about the fact that I'm an immigrant or that might mean talking about my struggles and mental health—which no one seems to do as an entrepreneur.” These conversations have become increasingly important as mental health has increasingly become an issue of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Telling stories and advocating for mental health from the top-down tells the rest of the company that it is OK to have these conversations. In fact, research shows that whether employees use company benefits is based on their perception of how colleagues talk about their use. Perhaps most importantly, leaders must model healthy behaviors as well. According to Culture Amp, “this shows employees that even the most senior person at the company takes part in a basic benefit provided to everyone.”
Making Policy Personal
In August 2019, Mind Share Partners interviewed Joel Gascoigne, CEO of social media management platform Buffer, about his experience with burnout. Over the course of two years, he faced misalignment in vision with his cofounder, financial challenges that resulted in layoffs and two c-level executives leaving. He was carried through by adrenaline, he writes. But once the company stabilized and adrenaline subsided, Gascoigne shared, “I lost motivation… I knew I cared deeply, but I had nothing left. I couldn’t get up in the morning. I felt very sensitive and emotional. It was like anything could set me off, and make me well up. I cried a lot, by myself and with people close to me… I knew I needed to do something because in my burnt-out state I couldn’t lead the company.”
Since then, Gascoigne has not only opened up about his history with burnout—he’s also established a variety of comprehensive policy changes at Buffer that have created a work environment that supports mental health. These policies included flexible working, reimbursements for coworking space costs, a “healthy work” Slack channel and access to Joyable, an online tool for managing anxiety and depression, for all employees. Gascoigne adds, “One of the things we’ve done to prevent burnout is put in place a true sabbatical policy at Buffer”—six weeks of fully paid time off every five years at the company.
By drawing upon his own experience when creating these resources at Buffer, Gascoigne maintained mental health as a priority and ensured their implementation throughout the company.
Change Through Allyship
You don’t have to personally experience mental health challenges to change the narrative, culture, and systems of support for mental health in the workplace.
In June of 2018, the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain by suicide sparked nationwide conversations about mental health. Within the week, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins sent a company-wide email to Cisco’s 75,000 employees urging the importance of mental health. In his email, he wrote, “We all know friends, family, and coworkers battling mental health conditions, or maybe you’re going through your own struggles,” and Robbins encouraged Cisco employees to support each other in addition to utilizing the available resources at the company. Throughout the year, Robbins continued to advocate for open conversations about mental health at Cisco.
Robbins has never publicly disclosed any personal challenges with mental health, but his open stance as a leader in support of mental health encouraged over 100 employees to respond to his email sharing their own personal mental health stories, bringing the issue to light. Since his announcement, Cisco has implemented access to counseling for employees and family members, on-site treatment and health centers, depression and anxiety screenings, meditation and yoga classes and emergency paid time off that doesn’t count against vacation days.
In the end, business leaders can and must do more to lead an evolving workforce—whether that be social strategies like vocal support and modeling or infrastructural ones like benefits, flexible working policies, or sponsoring a mental health employee resource group. The workplace landscape is changing when it comes to mental health, and we need new business leadership to champion culture change nationwide.
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Bernie is a Senior Associate at Mind Share Partners. He focuses primarily on organization programming, marketing, and design. Prior to Mind Share Partners, Bernie was an Associate at HopeLab, a human-centered design consulting nonprofit, where he developed evidence-based products and solutions to support mental health and wellbeing.
Bernie has also worked in freelance visual design, in education at Stanford as a Head Teaching Assistant, and in editorial work and academic research. Bernie also sits on the board of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA) Foundation, a grassroots philanthropic organization that provides funds and leverages resources to empower Asian/Pacific Islander LGBTQ students, organizations, and communities.
Bernie holds a Master of Health Science in Mental Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a B.A. in Psychology and Sociology from UC Berkeley.