It’s always a pleasure to chat with Sheila Hamilton, a former journalist, current suicide prevention and mental health advocate, and the CEO of Beyond Well Solutions. As part of our month-long series on mental health, we recently spoke with Sheila about mental health in the workplace, how leaders and managers can be supportive in this space, and how the pandemic has put us all more in tune with our mental wellness.
I want to first start the conversation by acknowledging the loss of your husband to suicide. I know that this experience galvanized your commitment to suicide prevention and mental health awareness in general. Can you share a bit about that?
Yes, suicide is the genesis of most of my work. It’s the reason I shifted my career from journalism to this. My late husband was incredibly efficient, super creative—he had that kind of energy that people are really attracted to. But it was only in the late stages of his mental illness that we started to notice that something was wrong. After he died by suicide, I spoke with his coworkers and they said they noticed the signs and symptoms of his decline. If I had talked to them, I probably would have been able to act faster. Work is often the first place where symptoms show up, and coworkers are the ones to notice them. Sometimes you see canaries in the coalmine at the workplace where you may not see them in everyday life yet.
Mental health is a much-talked-about topic in workplaces these days, and it’s not just HR who’s talking about it. It’s actually gone all the way up to the C-suite and the boardroom. Why should employers care about the mental and emotional wellness of their workforce?
Well, most managers and CEOs are really bottom-line oriented, and they understand that if their people are unwell, it affects the organization’s performance. We’re already seeing higher healthcare claims for mental health concerns, greater absenteeism, and presenteeism. Rates of attrition are also high—some people just can’t take it any longer. People are looking for other organizations that will support their mental health more than their previous organization had.
Also, we’re seeing burnout. Harvard Business Review did a study that showed that roughly 40% of people in all levels of the companies they surveyed had seen a decrease in mental health. So from the CEO to mid-level management to frontline employees—everyone is suffering. As humans, we cannot continue to challenge our bodies and our minds this way. If you’re looking at this in terms of human capital, even the highest performers are reporting these stress levels, and it’s just not sustainable. So supporting mental health as an employer is critical.
It’s so true. So what are some ways organizations can be supportive of their workforce’s mental health?
The companies that I’m encouraged by are doing progressive things like more one-on-ones where the manager and employee come up with creative ways of working that fit the employee’s life. For example, a single mom might need to be offline from 3 to 4 to pick up her kids from school. Knowing that she won’t be pulled into meetings during that time is a huge stress relief.
They’re allowing people to set schedules and boundaries that work for them. Maybe it’s no emailing after a specific time or taking Friday afternoons off. We’re doing it so we can save our most talented people. In truth, younger generations expect this support as part of their own personal development, so it will become an expectation moving forward that companies be more flexible. I’ve also seen companies add Slack channels that are dedicated to stress, anxiety, and other mental health concerns.
I’m also really passionate about managers undergoing mental health training so they’re empowered to talk about their own challenges. If employees don’t see it modeled by their managers, they’re not going to participate. The C-suite and managers need to recognize it, talk about their own struggles, show that they use the resources available, and really walk the talk. And if you openly talk about it, other people can say, okay, maybe I can do that with my own team members.
We spend so much of our day with coworkers—whether in-person or virtual. So, as you mentioned before, we might be the ones to spot signs that something is wrong. What can we be on the lookout for that might indicate that someone needs help?
Some possible signs: Are people consistently late for calls, are they withdrawn where they used to participate, is there a marked change in people’s looks, is it obvious they gained or lost a lot of weight, are people who used to be social not attending the social gatherings, are they keeping their camera off all the time?
I’ll use myself as an example again. I had no idea that the behaviors my late husband was exhibiting were signs of mental illness. He’d leave his car door open at night; he wasn’t sleeping. I found out that he’d been having an affair. Some of the behaviors of mental illness look a lot like a person being uncooperative or acting impulsive. I just thought he was acting like a jerk. I had no idea what it looked like or what it encompassed. So having that insight and knowing the signs is so helpful.
Once we’ve noticed something in a coworker, what’s the best way to have a conversation about it?
Well, I can tell you the worst way to talk about it is to mention your actual observation. If you say to someone, “You look really tired lately,” or, “Your work on this project is really shoddy,” that’s not the best way. First, you have to establish rapport by asking open-ended questions: “What are you doing for childcare these days; how is it working for you? How are you doing on this particular project; is there anything I can do to make the process easier for you?”
Also, use your experiences to talk about your own mental wellness. For example, “I’ve been struggling with anxiety lately, so I used the EAP and was so happy to have those six free calls with someone who listens objectively. Do you want me to pass on that information so you can look into it as well?” Lastly, follow up with that person. “Were you able to call the EAP? Do you need help navigating that? Do you need me to help you get time off so you can better manage things at home?”
So have the conversations and give people time to answer. If you begin to ask real questions that get to the bottom of people’s well-being, it becomes a sacred, important time. Also, organizations should be aware that most people prefer these conversations with a manager, a peer, or a colleague.
You advise many companies on workplace mental health. What are some of the tools and techniques you use with them?
Mental health assessment tools and surveys are really helpful to get a gauge of how people are feeling. We send them about every three to six months. We find that most declines don’t happen overnight, so you can see the accumulation over time. You also need to keep taking a pulse to make sure that people who are getting assistance are seeing improvement.
It’s also just about awareness. Many people feel symptoms but don’t know what signs indicate a mental illness, or they don’t understand the language or have a vocabulary for it. They might be drinking more or saying, “Of course I’m angry!” or “Of course I’m not sleeping.” These are all signs of a worsening mental illness, and those people could be at risk.
So we use tools that allow them to check which behaviors line up with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, and other mental health issues. The results of an assessment like that can make people realize they’re experiencing a mental health issue, and then they can take steps to work on it before it gets worse.
What if a CEO or senior leader is reluctant to pay attention to employee mental health or doesn’t feel comfortable opening up about their own situation?
Put simply, I tell them it’s a business issue. For example, one of the organizations I consult with is a lumber company, which pretty much operated all through COVID. I told the CEO he needed to pay attention to his workers’ mental health. Before accepting my advice, he did his own investigation and found that 50% of his workforce was on depression or anti-anxiety medication. It was eye-opening for him. And so, he took the steps necessary to help his employees manage their mental health through one of the largest shared experiences we’ve all faced. So look at your health claims and get real data from your health insurance company to see the financial impact. Eventually, we are going to see it in terms of the dollar figures. Pre-COVID, mental health cost American companies $222 billion dollars in absenteeism and presenteeism. We expect those costs to increase this year.
I also stress that vulnerable leadership is the new way of leading. It’s the way to harness the diversity of our teams and make people feel they have a place at work. The mental differences in your workforce are part of that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiative. Everyone has different levels and ways of coping. If you truly want to build a DEI workplace, you have to look at mental health as part of the DEI initiative. If you don’t, your company is going to be left behind.
What are some of the gender differences you see regarding mental health in the workplace—especially now with the pandemic?
Women are really suffering. Those reporting the highest levels of stress and mental health issues are top-performing women. The expectations of women are high—they’re helping with childcare and remote schooling, doing more work around the house, and juggling their jobs all at the same time. We need to look out for burnout among women and make sure they have the flexibility to attend to all the things in their lives.
With men, there’s definitely a stigma around them openly talking about things they see as a weakness. Men are raised to be strong and silent. They’ll report that they’re doing fine, or it’s not that bad. But guess what? Their suicide rate has increased more than 50% in the last decade. They keep it in until they implode.
Men do not want to talk about mental illness at work—they think it will prevent them from moving up in their position when the opposite is true. They actually become better team leaders, more focused, more excited about the work, and they’re more successful. Every organization needs to be thinking about why men are under-reporting their suffering—they’re not telling you because they think it will make them look weak or inefficient.
So organizations need to push that getting help and looking after our mental health is gender-neutral, and that the company does not discriminate when it comes to taking time off to deal with a mental health condition or getting the help they need.
I’ve heard you talk about having a “mental health toolkit.” What do you mean by that, and why is it so important?
Well, it’s really a collection of resources, techniques, coping mechanisms, and self-care tactics that you know you can turn to for times when you’re just feeling down to times when you are experiencing a more severe mental health crisis. When my husband died, I didn’t have that toolkit. I had done nothing to develop mental resiliency. I had to pull myself out of it by writing on sticky notes what I had to do that day, including drink water. Look at the sky. Get off of social media. We don’t want to wait for a crisis to develop those mental health toolkits. We should be building them every day.
And I’ll also say that even if you have a mental health toolkit, it’s still not easy. I recently lost my mother to COVID, and that, along with all of the other losses we’ve experienced—loss of socialization, loss of our normal daily lives, loss of travel—nearly leveled me. And I have all the tools! I meditate, I exercise, I give myself space, and even I felt like I didn’t know if I could recover from this.
Sometimes the old tools don’t work anymore, and you have to find other resources to add to your personal toolkit, like maybe concentrating on the experience of something very small and very quiet—like petting a dog, or just taking a moment to breathe. I love hearing people’s methods for getting through times like these—what works for some might not work for others. So it’s cool to get ideas and inspiration from other people. For example, I was consulting with this CEO, and he said he hasn’t gone into the office much and that’s where he got his energy from. So when he’s done with work, he goes for a drive and then walks back in and says, “I’m home!” It’s physically setting those boundaries. I thought it was a brilliant idea!
What do you think about having mental health champions in an organization—people others can come to for advice?
I think it’s a great idea. In one of our companies, there was a Latino man who was a senior VP and was suffering from depression. He used the EAP and decided to talk not only in his community—because there’s a great stigma with Latinos about getting mental health help—but also at the workplace.
I know another woman in HR whose husband died by suicide. When she returned to work, she told her company that she was open to talking to other people who had lost someone to suicide. It’s great to talk about that experience, and it’s enormously helpful to teams to hear their leadership speak about this.
These peer-to-peer listening conversations make people feel better and more whole. I can’t even tell you. It’s one of the most important things companies can do—offer a real face to share how they’ve gotten to the other side and how they’re doing well.
It’s an overused phrase, but do you see any “silver linings” coming out of the pandemic when it comes to mental health?
One of the most hopeful things to come out of this pandemic is that for the very first time, people said, “Oh, I now know what it feels like to have anxiety, or to not want to get out of bed.” That has to be one of the shining promises leftover from this thing—that people are more compassionate and aware of the experiences of those around them, and they’re more willing to care for their own mental health.
A big thanks to Sheila for talking with us about this important topic. If you’d like to learn more about how your organization can better address employee mental health, including access to the Beyond Well Solutions Podcast series, visit our website or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.