Ginger Zee on why HR needs to step up on mental health

Ginger Zee isn’t shy about her mental health journey. The ABC chief meteorologist has been vocal about her struggles—even writing about her personal journey in her New York Times best-selling memoir “Natural Disaster: I Cover Them, I Am One,” and its sequel, “A Little Closer to Home: How I Found the Calm after the Storm,” which was released earlier this year.

And she knows she’s not alone in her mental health issues.

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“We are not all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm,” Zee told HR leaders last week during the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference’s opening keynote about the impact of mental health struggles on employees everywhere.

After her keynote address, HRE talked more with Zee about how the workplace handles mental health, why HR leaders should get involved and more.

HRE: Why do you think that the commitment to mental health should be on HR and other company leaders? Why is it important to have that in the workplace? Because historically, it hasn’t been.

Ginger Zee, ABC
Ginger Zee, ABC

Zee: Because nobody else is going to do it. I have an easier time speaking to somebody at work a lot of times [about my mental health] than I do members of my family, as co-workers have a less intimate relationship with you.

That is a benefit of having an employer, a big company, who has access to these places. It is a privilege to work at a place that cares for their employees. Everything from having a good cup of coffee to having a place where you would feel comfortable going—and knowing that HR was there to help you—affects morale.

[A colleague was going through a hard time] and I didn’t know how to help her. But I knew who could help and that was trained professionals who know how to do that. So I started looking for her. And then someone told me [our workplace] gets three free sessions with an in-house therapist. I’m like, “We have an in-house therapist?” No one ever told me that. I went with her to the first session to the lady that was free for three sessions, who then could help funnel her toward the right people who could give her the right help. That’s available, apparently, within our company, but I had no idea. It’s great to have that. But knowing that was really important.

HRE: That’s something that we see all the time in this industry—that people don’t know about the benefits they have through their workplace.

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Zee: I’m telling you, the back of the bathroom door is about the best we get. Nobody told me we get three free sessions—I would have remembered that because I’m in tune with this stuff. What if [my colleague] hadn’t had me? She wasn’t going to get help. You think she’s going to be the best employee she can be [going through issues]? She’s going to fall apart at work; she’s going to be a wreck. And rightfully so. Not everyone has an advocate, but they need advocates.

HRE: How do you think we are doing as far as being open about mental health?

Zee: I think stigma-wise, we’ve gotten so good. You can walk around right now and be like, “Do you suffer with anxiety? Or depression?” And a lot of people are open about that. We’re good with that. But as soon as I say that I was diagnosed—and I went to the hospital—with borderline personality disorder, people get really weird about it. So there’s still stigma around it. It’s gotten better, but the stigma now is on the action—it’s what people do to help themselves. Therapy’s cool. I think everybody is pretty good with therapy. But if you have to be hospitalized, that’s when the eyebrows raise.

HRE: Do you think that vulnerability belongs in the workplace? Is that a good idea?

Zee: No question. I thought COVID helped because if anybody has a cough, people are like, “What are you doing here?” Never in our society has that happened. And now it doesn’t matter where your cough came from. Even if it’s allergies, and you know it’s allergies, people are like, “You gotta go; get out of here.” That’s pretty cool. It’s one of those things that came out of [the pandemic] that’s good is that we can finally say to somebody else, “Go care for yourself.” I hate that we’re having our own pandemic of mental health. But we’re not treating it the same. That’s the hard part. You can’t hear it, you can’t see it.

HRE: As an HR person mentioned to you after your speech at HBLC, there’s a fine line between what HR can and cannot ask employees regarding mental health. What are your thoughts on how HR can empower frontline managers or frontline leaders to be more receptive and open so employees can go to them for help?

Zee: Teaching others how to be teammates or advocates would be very cool. I know that’s a lot of work, but I think it’s important. Then you get the best employee. I would never be the employee that I am today if I wouldn’t have gotten the help that I needed.

I think about two summers ago when the pandemic hit, and I had that gray day, the grayest day I’d had in a long time and I was like, “I’m not immune to this.” That was a wake-up call. I had already told my husband, I told my mom, so I’d done what I was supposed to do. I told my team, “This is how I’m feeling.” My son saw me crying on the back deck, and he said, “Mommy, what’s wrong?” And then in that moment, I was just like, “I don’t feel well. I’m sick.” Because I am. In that moment, I wasn’t well. I was sick. So translating that, it’s important we [have people] who say, “l understand this isn’t forever, but we’re here to help you until you do [feel better], and you get some sort of relief no matter how long that takes.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.