How an executive overcame her disability and increased her membership
“What do you do with your disability?” I was surprised by the question from my college career advisor. As they looked over my shoulder as I completed my career aptitude test, I looked myself up and down for a sign of what was driving his question. Finally, I took a deep breath and asked, “what disability?”
“You have dyslexiahe said flatly.
I was moved to hear those three words. Now I knew why I was struggling in school, couldn’t spell well, and processed information differently than everyone else around me. Decades later, Those words they were my first step on a journey to find my voice as a vulnerable and authentic leader.
The impact of belonging and bosses on mental health
As I moved up my HR career, I was encouraged to hide my dyslexia to improve my chances for promotion. Having to hide how I work and process information was stressful, required a lot of mental energy to fit in, and set me back at 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. recent UKG survey Of more than 3,400 people in 10 countries, employees say their boss has more impact on their mental health than their primary care doctor (51%) and therapist (41%). Additionally, bosses have the same impact on mental health as our spouses and partners at 69%.
How a trainer improved my well-being
As I worked my way up to the C-suite, I worked with an executive coach along with five other up-and-comers. At a retreat, our trainer had us meditate for about an hour. He asked us to visualize where we wanted to be as executives and how we wanted to be. He told us to think about the details, not just the title. He thinks about the people we interact with. He thinks about what we’re wearing. Think about what we are feeling. Visualize what’s on the walls of your office.
I closed my eyes and had purple hair. I was wearing a business casual dress, but I was rocking my high top sneakers. I envisioned a painting on my wall that I had yet to paint. I saw colleagues smiling at me and excited to see me. We would hug because I am a hugger. I laughed every day at work, and people thanked me, and I learned every day with them.
When the meditation was over, the trainer asked a simple question: “Why can’t you do that today?”
That weekend, I dyed my hair, painted the image I saw in my head, and have worn sneakers every day to work ever 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 felt accomplished.
Then something magical happened: undressing had a tremendous impact on the people around me.
How I opened up about my well-being at work
After a town hall meeting, when I spoke openly about my dyslexia (with my purple hair and Chucks), an employee came up to say hi. When he took off his jacket, his arms were exposed and I noticed the beautiful tattoos on him. “Thank you for being so real,” he said. “I thought that I had to hide my artwork, a part of me, in front of my colleagues and bosses. I no longer have to hide. I can be me
Think about the mental energy and stress that covering up the real you creates. Could you be at your best if you spent the day pretending to be something you’re not? How would his mental state be affected?
Some people believe that it is necessary to build trust before becoming vulnerable. However, being open about our own stories and struggles is precisely how we form relationships based on trust.
With confidence and authenticity, people expect your uniqueness and you celebrate theirs. Belonging fuels a healthy and productive workplace and empowers us to have more mental energy for other pursuits, whether it be our personal passions, activities with our family and friends, or problem solving at work.
7 Ways Companies Can Support Employee Wellbeing
Once you’ve built a culture of belonging and your people begin to open up to each other, what can leaders and companies do when someone reveals a mental illness or struggle?
Be realistic about it. Our survey found that 90% of HR and C-suite leaders you believe that working for your company has a positive impact on the mental health of your employees; however, only half of the employees agree. 20% of employees say that their work harms their mental health, and at least 1 in 3 workers always or often feel stressed by work (40%).
People fight in silence. Leaders should avoid burying their heads in the sand and making mental health a topic of discussion within the team. Don’t force the conversation, but make it okay for people to have one. If you read an article about mental health, burnout, or work-related wellness, send it to your team, give them feedback, and open the door for anyone who wants to talk.
Pay attention, not medical advice. Seven out of 10 employees say they wish your manager would do more to support your mental health. However, if an employee reveals a mental health problem, he should avoid giving medical advice. Be careful not to put too much pressure on employees to provide personal details as well. Leave that to the trained professionals. Let them know your door is open to continue the conversation as needed. Dig into what can be done regarding their workload, schedule, roadblocks, or goals to help them navigate what they’re going through.
Provide an empathic voice. If you feel comfortable, be open about your feelings and personal struggles or experiences with mental health. You’ve already become a true leader, so take it to the next level. Don’t make the situation just about you, but provide enough information to show empathy for what they’re 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 that your company offers? Probably not. While 93% of HR leaders say their company offers at least one mental health-specific program or resource, only half of employees have used these resources. In addition, 70% say that I wish your company would do more to support your mental health.
We must do more than just share information. Human resource and people managers need to come together to ensure employees take advantage of their resources, such as EAPs and wellness coach resources. At UKG, we have created a wellness menu that employees can access for a full list of available resources.
Model good behavior around free time. We found that 28% of employees take 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 not using all your allotted free time. 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 responding to work emails, it bodes badly for stressed-out employees.
Help leaders lead. Being a middle manager is the most complex job, and there is a growing trend of people who no longer want to lead. People in the $100-200K salary band report being most unhappy at work, and more than half (57%) I wish someone had warned them not take your 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 need to make sure 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 partnering with HR or the wellness team, companies can host specific training sessions for managers on mental health resources and guide the navigation of tough questions and conversations with direct reports. For example, at UKG, whenever there is a new initiative, we run training for all people managers first, and then for all employees, so that leaders are equipped to provide guidance.
Throughout my career in human resources, I’ve learned that 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 for 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 Personnel Officer (CPO) for United Kingdom, a leading provider of HR, payroll and workforce management solutions for everyone. Prior to UKG, Pat served as CPO of Procore Technologies and has held multiple leadership roles at ServiceNow, LinkedIn, Plantronics, Inc. and Yahoo!