Supporting Mental Health Through Mutually Meaningful Work Engagements, with Michelle E. Dickinson, Ep #57
Play • 46 min

The United States is unique in many ways, but interestingly, one of those ways is that it is a bit behind when it comes to supporting mental health through the workplace. I speak often about the importance of creating mutually meaningful work engagements and there is no better context for that discussion than that of brain health.

My guest on this episode is Michelle E Dickinson. She’s a mental health advocate who has walked a path through what she calls a “mental health trifecta” that has guided her to a place of support, encouragement, and training for those interested in making the workplace a more supportive place for those struggling with mental health issues.

Sadly, mental health still carries a stigma in Western culture, one that can and should be eliminated through education, compassion, and trust. It’s my hope that you’ll continue reading to discover what is being done and can be done to help American corporations and organizations become better equipped to support employees when it comes to their mental health.

Why is the United States behind other nations in supporting mental health in the workplace?

Canada and Australia for example, are far ahead of the United States when it comes to workplace initiatives that not only support but provide for the mental health support of employees. These initiatives are part of the overall inclusion strategies of most companies and turn out to be much more than a simple employee benefit. They are aimed at making their employees more productive and fulfilled through better care for them as individual human beings.

One of the reasons the United States is not as far along is that for years mental health issues have been an invisible disability, something that people suffering from mental health challenges are ashamed to share. Or, those supporting a family member with mental health issues often feel unable to reveal the issue for fear of embarrassing or shaming their family member.

When organizational leaders bravely take the first step, talking about these issues from their own experience, it sets the stage for those within the organization to willingly open up about their struggles too. While it may seem strange for this to happen in a working environment, it is a key component to developing a culture of trust and inclusiveness where mutually meaningful work engagements are possible. 

When business performance overshadows compassion, we get into trouble

Companies are in business to make money and to provide valuable services to their clients or customers. Employee performance is a key factor in making those outcomes a reality. But today’s leaders are learning that a healthy company culture — which is the environment in which optimal performance happens — is vital to top performance for everyone within the organization.

Company cultures that are unwilling to recognize the real-life struggles of their team members — like mental health issues — become self-defeating. The trust that is foundational for the development of high-performing teams simply can’t happen if an individual's life situations are ignored or unaddressed. Leaders must express care for the members of their team if the team as a whole is to thrive. I guess I’m talking about "compassion-first" leaders.

Michelle says it this way, “When business performance trumps compassion, we get into trouble.” That is a leadership responsibility.

Why leaders must learn to couple compassion with trust

Put yourself in the following situation: You have a challenging life situation going on and it’s requiring such high levels of mental and emotional bandwidth that you are having a hard time keeping up with responsibilities at work. It’s probably not a stretch for most of us to imagine. We’ve probably been there. Now change the scenario slightly and imagine the issue you’re dealing with is a mental health issue.

If your boss at work is a person who is solely results-oriented, they could be the type who is often heard to say, “I don’t want excuses, I want results.” Ask yourself a few questions:

“Do I feel comfortable sharing what’s going on in my personal life with my boss? If not, why not?”

The answer is likely that you don’t feel that he/she would express compassion for you and the situation you’re enduring, which in turn, makes it impossible for you to feel any level of trust toward them.

Leaders who cannot express compassion toward the sometimes all-consuming issues their team members are going through will find it impossible to build an environment of trust. And without trust, employee fulfillment and morale will decline and retention will be a continual problem. It’s not a beneficial road to be on for the company or team members.

What kind of training is needed to make your organization supportive of mental health issues?

During this conversation, Michelle described a program that is designed to help organizational leaders create a mutually meaningful work environment in view of mental health issues. Her area of expertise is to help forward-thinking organizations create safe and compassionate workplace cultures so they can improve engagement, retention, and productivity — especially as it relates to supporting mental health.

The good news is that any organization can make strides toward improvement in supporting the mental health of its team members. It requires…

  • A clear commitment to foster a culture of inclusion for those with invisible disabilities (mental health issues). It starts with leaders at the highest level and is expressed through compassionate corporate policies
  • The company also needs to be committed to providing legitimate and easily accessible mental health support, not just as an employee benefit, but also in the form of relational support
  • Naturally, everyone within the company needs education or training, especially those who are in leadership roles
  • There are also options for developing employee-driven peer support programs where those who have experienced mental health challenges come alongside others who are currently walking those same paths

Michelle makes it clear that no company is going to develop the ability to support mental health overnight, but that steps in the right direction go a long way in developing the trust necessary to support such initiatives and set them up for success.

My hope is that more and more companies within the United States will adopt this compassionate model when it comes to supporting mental health for their employees. Naturally, those in positions of leadership have to set the example and start the forward motion. As a leader or emerging leader, what can you do in your organization to help your company move toward becoming one that is known for supporting mental health in its team members?

Outline of This Episode
  • [2:02] An overview of Michelle’s career in the pharmaceutical industry
  • [3:47] Why Michelle decided to write her book, “Breaking Into My Life”
  • [8:52] How organizational leadership can make a huge difference
  • [13:10] The example set by Canada and Australia for workplace mental health care
  • [17:17] A program oriented toward educating youth about the issue of brain health
  • [22:01] The peer program Michelle has created and the impact it’s having
  • [28:10] How organizations can set the stage for good mental health support
  • [31:47] Corporate missteps to learn from in building better practices
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