I’m not OK, and that’s OK: Encouraging open dialogue about mental health in the (remote) workplace

Health care

Shareen Luze, head of HR at RBC Wealth Management, shares three ways leaders can help support the wellbeing of their teams.


Over the past two and a half months, I’ve had countless colleagues confess to me that they’re struggling. They’re struggling with the monotony and isolation of working remotely. They’re struggling with the stress of stepping into the role of teacher at home. But mostly, they’re struggling with the uncertainty of COVID-19 and what it means for their community, their family and their own personal health.

You know what I tell them? That it’s OK. This environment that we’re living in today is not normal, and none of us have any truly relevant past experiences we can draw on to navigate this. Why wouldn’t we feel uneasy and be worried?

Still, admitting that something isn’t quite right – even to yourself and even in these unusual times – is difficult. I know because I’ve been there.

Not many people in my professional circle know it, but I have anxiety. It’s something I’ve lived with for most of my life, but for a long time didn’t realize it. I just thought that constant feeling of panic and the inability to sleep at night because of everything running around in my brain was normal. I didn’t know that healthy people didn’t live that way!

In fact, I pretended I had everything together. Even after the birth of my first son, my house was spotless, my child was Gerber-baby material, and I was perfectly coiffed and ready for primetime every single day. It wasn’t until I stopped sleeping and lost 30 pounds in two weeks that I realized something was wrong. Even then, I didn’t want to admit it, not even to my husband.

But things got so bad one day – today I lovingly refer to it as “the day I lost my stuff” (of course I’ve edited the real word I use) – that I had no choice but to call my doctor and confess something was off. She promptly sent me to the psychiatric emergency room, where I received my diagnosis: severe post-partum anxiety. Along with that diagnosis, I got a prescription for anti-anxiety medication and with it, a sudden rush of shame.

Sadly, there’s a stigma attached to mental health diagnoses. When we talk about mental health, a lot of people immediately think of really severe forms of mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder that have been overdramatized by Hollywood. What most of us are encountering on a daily basis – general anxiety disorder and mild depression – is less severe than what Hollywood portrays, but still serious.

We have to be able to talk about mental health without fear of shame, particularly in this environment. That’s why, despite my inclination to keep my own battle with anxiety private, I’m opening up more and talking about it, particularly with colleagues.  

I’m also encouraging managers and leaders in my own organization to help support the mental health and wellbeing of their people. Here are a few suggestions I’ve offered:

  • Connect more frequently and more intentionally with your people. That’s difficult now that we all find ourselves working remotely, but it’s not impossible. It requires more creativity, proactivity and vulnerability on our part. Don’t cancel your one-on-ones, and don’t stop the team meetings. In fact, create even more opportunities for people to connect. And when you connect, share! As leaders, we are hard-wired to appear as if we have it all together. That isn’t helping us, and it isn’t helping our people. Share your own struggles and stresses because when you do, you’ll find people will share with you! I have two young school-aged children at home, so my life is chaos. I don’t try to hide it anymore. I talk about the clogged toilets, temper tantrums and scraped knees openly.
  • Encourage your people to reach out and connect with others. It’s a proven fact that if you reach out to someone when you’re feeling down, you’ll feel better. Of course, for people who are struggling, reaching out to chat is often the last thing they want to do. So that’s why I routinely ask colleagues who I suspect might be struggling to do me a favor – because, let’s face it, I can’t be everywhere! – and reach out to five people to just check in.
  • Advocate for better mental health resources and benefits at your organization, and promote the heck out of those benefits! As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, RBC is enhancing our employee programs to meet the immediate and changing needs of our colleagues and their families. RBC’s medical plans already included telehealth options, and we’ve made it easier to use those services during this time by temporarily providing no-cost visits (no co-pays or co-insurance). We also have several programs that offer free, confidential counseling and coaching services for employees and their family members who may be experiencing stress, depression and other mental health concerns. Employees can receive personal support by phone or video conference – without leaving their homes. Our executives and HR teams have been sharing these resources, to ensure employees know what’s available to them. Whatever your organization has to offer, make sure employees know how to tap into those resources.

While some states are starting to relax stay-at-home orders, it will be a long time before life returns to what we once considered normal. Feelings of loss, stress and worry are to be expected. Companies and leaders have an incredible opportunity to show employees just how much they care by creating forums and resources to address those feelings rather than ignore them and leave people to fend for themselves.  For my part, I’m trying to share the many examples of my “human-ness.”  Whether it’s accidently hitting “reply all” with a quick-witted comment intended for one person, wearing two different colored shoes to the office, or that I don’t have it all together and am just pretending and hoping no one notices.

This article was originally published in MarketWatch for Mental Health Awareness Month in May.

RBC Wealth Management, a division of RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Member NYSE/FINRA/SIPC.

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