Why this CMO revealed his mental health struggles to his team

When I accepted a job as chief marketing officer with a new company a few months ago, I wasted no time in opening up to my employees about my struggles with anxiety and depression. The results have been tremendous.

As a way of introducing myself, I’ve held “ask me anything” sessions. Most recently, I did one when I met face-to-face for the first time with my team in Brazil. It was not long before they were asking me about mental health.

I shared the story of experiencing bullying as a child, and trying to bury all the trauma deep in my psyche as I got older. I explained that when I reached a career goal by becoming a chief marketing officer at age 30, I looked around and could not understand why I was unhappy. From the outside, it seemed that everything should be fine. It was only then that I began to realize career success was no antidote for what I had to reckon with. So I began the work — with therapy, medication, meditation, all of it.

Sharing this with my employees helped to unleash the floodgates. Some began to share their own stories. They talked about stress, struggles during the pandemic, and experience with mental illnesses. The conversation set our relationships on the right foot.

I have a global workforce, with employees across North and South America and Europe. As I’ve met with more and more teams, I’ve engaged in similar, open conversations.

Combating stigma

It’s never been so important to make mental wellness a subject we can talk about without stigmas. The World Health Organization reports that the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in anxiety and depression. A report from Boston University last fall found that depression rates in the United States tripled in early 2020 and continued to grow in 2021, affecting one in every three American adults.

Stigmas often prevent people from even recognizing their own psychological struggles. I used to view such things as signs of weakness, so I ignored them. Businesses can go a long way in helping to end those stigmas.

A survey from McKinsey finds that 79% of employees say an anti-stigma awareness campaign around mental wellness would be valuable, but only 23% of employers have one. “Also, while C-suite-led communications can be an effective tool to raise awareness of support and reduce mental health stigma, only a quarter of employers report using this channel,” the report says.

My experience shows that a “campaign” does not have to be a complex endeavor. It can start with executives opening up. But that can be especially difficult for people in the C-suite to do.

“The best leaders are sharers”

In a report for Harvard Business Review, three researchers shared the results of an analysis they conducted, focusing on the leadership styles of executives. They found that “the best leaders are sharers,” whom they define as those “who openly acknowledged their fears, stresses, and other negative emotions.”

Sharing negative emotions can lessen the impact those emotions have on the leader; build empathetic relationships with employees; encourage others to open up; and help people overcome their own struggles, they wrote. All of this has powerful results, “ultimately boosting morale and performance throughout the organization. ”

Still, despite these benefits, many executives are reluctant to share, “driven by a widespread assumption that true leaders must always be aspirational and results-oriented, and that admitting negative emotions is a sign of weakness.”

If my experience proves anything, it’s that mustering the courage to open up about your own inner turmoil is worth the work. We should all normalize these challenges as simply a part of what it is to be human.

To be sure, opening up at my new company, Gympass, may be easier than it is for executives in some other companies, since Gympass is all about wellness. But I did similar things at previous companies that were not focused on wellness, and had similarly powerful results.

Of course, these kinds of conversations are just a beginning. Prioritizing employee well-being in an organization takes a series of steps. (See a list of essentials here.) If you’re looking to build a mental wellness program at work, this month presents an especially good opportunity. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and organizations including the Center for Workplace Mental Health, part of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, offer tool kits and resources.

These days, there’s a lot of talk about how people should be able to bring their “whole selves” to work. The “whole self” includes the whole mind. When we accept that and embrace the opportunity to improve employees’ mental well-being, everyone stands to gain.

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