How my experience with mental health challenges shapes my D&I leadership

Mental health is not an abstract concept for me. When I was a teenager, my mother, who was a busy and successful professional, suffered a major depressive episode. Everything stopped as my family grappled with what was happening. Mental health was not anything we had ever thought about, much less discussed.

As a teen, I wanted to blame her for somehow not doing better, knowing better. I didn’t know then that mental illness is no different than a physical ailment. We don’t condemn a patient for being physically sick; why do we when it comes to mental health? This journey of going from blame to shame to eventual understanding is one that I share openly (with my mother’s blessing) so the stigma that usually comes with a common human challenge doesn’t inhibit others from getting the support they need–especially during a global pandemic.

I’ve learned from my mom that depression is something people deal with in silence, hiding it even from themselves and forgetting that it affects everyone around them. Once my mom realized how her depression was impacting the family, it was for us that she fought to dig herself out of it.

It’s an understatement to say that coping with the realities of COVID-19 at work–especially if you’re working from home–is stressful. Adding to that stress can be so many other factors, like childcare, elder caregiving, financial concerns, health issues … the list goes on. If you’re lucky, you might have a few trusted friends you can share your feelings with but bringing that to work is not usually people’s go-to solution for success.

My goal is to change that.

As a leader in inclusion and diversity, it’s been important to me to take a holistic approach, which means employee wellness also takes center stage among DEI efforts. I’m always looking for a way to relate, connect and normalize conversations about mental health–and that begins with me. Ask me how I’m doing, and I’ll tell you the truth: The pandemic has been a struggle. For me, there’s a constant low-grade hum of negativity in the background. I don’t share this to indulge myself; I share this to offer a lifeline and to begin a conversation and make a connection. One that can save someone’s day, or even someone’s life.

Leading with the personal, the vulnerable and the relatable has been my leadership strategy for making my company a stronger, healthier place. Oftentimes, companies ask people to bring their best selves to work; mental health is part of that equation. By openly sharing their challenges, leaders can create a safe place for others to do the same.

Hello. I’m exhausted and petrified

One of the ways that we did this at pharmaceutical company Sanofi was by creating an “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” campaign, where we basically said: “Imagine I’m wearing a name tag with my first and last name and title. What if it also said that I’m exhausted, that I recently lost the remaining elders in my family, and my father had unexpected bypass surgery and I’m petrified that I might crack?”

It doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped functioning at my job, but now we’ve opened the door to a meaningful conversation. The response to that campaign was overwhelmingly positive. We heard everything from gratitude to empathy to cries for help. The takeaway is this: Companies are better able to provide the support and resources their employees need when people feel comfortable sharing how they really feel and the issues with which they’re struggling. It promotes not only wellness but connection and retention.

A caveat: Helping employees with mental health challenges is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. By making Total Wellness a part of Inclusion & Diversity, we acknowledged the fact that mental health challenges and stigmas vary according to gender, race, ethnicity and other characteristics. For example, women generally have more permission, culturally speaking, to talk about these things and to seek help. Men are less likely to seek help for depression, substance abuse or suicidal thoughts–yet six million men suffer annually from depression and one in five will develop alcohol dependence. Men are also four times more likely than women to commit suicide.

Furthermore, the CDC reports that Black and Hispanic men are less likely than white men to use mental health treatments for anxiety and depression. The reasons they give range from fear of being judged to fear of losing their jobs.

Related: Despite progress, HR is just ‘beginning’ to address DEI

COVID-19 has, of course, dramatically increased the need for companies to check in frequently with all their employees on the state of their mental health. Back in October 2019, we launched a company-wide mental health event to coincide with World Mental Health Day. Some 1,500 people attended–not a small number by any means. Our next event was in May, after the shutdown, and 2,500 participated. We continued the conversation again last October–this time inviting family members to join.

To meet their employees’ varying needs, companies need to bring a mix of resources to the table: a diverse selection of benefits coupled with speakers, programming and several on-demand resources. I look at mental health like a diamond with its many facets: The issue is universal, but every group has its unique needs.

When people can be their best, they can do their best. Increased productivity, engagement and retention are the benefits of advancing an open, vulnerable and compassionate approach to mental health and wellness in any organization. It also just makes us better human beings.

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Cristina Santos
Cristina Santos is an inclusion and diversity executive, who worked until recently as head of inclusion and diversity, total wellbeing and EEO at Sanofi North America.