When Emily Grossman began work as Training Institute Manager at Coordinated Behavioral Care (CBC), she had the same fear that had plagued her at the start of other jobs. As a person who is “out” about living with mental illness, she had always worried whether this new working environment would truly be supportive. She always did her best to be a conscientious employee but had experienced discrimination and stigma at some of her previous jobs.
Grossman had not experienced any symptoms of her mental illness in well over a decade. Yet, in work, she felt like she was sometimes placed under a microscope. As she recounts, “If I was having a bad day, I would experience my supervisors speaking to me, worried that my mental illness was the problem. They would say things like ‘are you speaking about this to your providers?’”
Grossman knew that other employees were not being asked questions like this, but she figured that this was an experience that she would have to live with to follow her heart and life mission. She had chosen to not hide her diagnosis because she wanted to give credence to the idea that people living with mental illness can make real, positive contributions to society, and she also wanted to empower others to do the same. But she worried sometimes that this approach could hurt her career in the long run.
Grossman immediately established herself at CBC – developing the organization’s Training Institute – and was promoted to Training Director within a year. However, shortly after her promotion, she experienced a bout of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. She tried hard to work despite these symptoms, but slowly felt like they were interfering. Her psychiatrist advised she take some time off.
Grossman worried tremendously about requesting time off for her mental wellbeing. She had worked hard to build her reputation at CBC and was concerned she could lose her job, or at least prompt CBC to put her under that old, familiar microscope. However, neither thing happened. Her supervisor, Amanda Semidey, Senior Vice President of Quality, reassured Grossman that she was a valued employee and accommodations would be made to support her wellness and recovery.
As Semidey explains, “Despite no longer working with members directly, as a leader, I remain very much grounded and informed by my social work values. Just as clients are more than their diagnosis, employees are more than just their productivity. Before me was a competent and valued member of our staff, whose provider had deemed it necessary to take a medical leave. As a supervisor, I realized that despite how transparent Emily had been about her mental health journey, before me was an employee who had some trepidation about revealing current symptoms. First and foremost, I had only two questions, ‘What do you need me to know and how do I best support what you need professionally?’”
Semidey advises, “While operationally there are many logistics to manage in these matters, I would encourage leaders to prioritize the needs of their employee in that moment. Empower them to tell you what assignments they are most worried about as they likely know their job and deliverables better than you. If possible, partner with them in the transition of their assignments so that they don’t feel supplemental, but integral to the process. Promptly recruit your HR Department for additional support and resources. Reassure your employee that a mental health leave is a medical leave and employers are accustomed to managing medical leaves as a routine part of business. Employees who can truly step away from work for personal time off; whether that is for vacation or a medical leave, typically return rested and refreshed. Supporting staff to do so is simply good for office morale, as staff feel valued for their contributions and understood as a person who is more than just their job title.”
Grossman began with a week off, but it became evident to her that she might need more time. She felt so grateful when HR Director Dacia Barrington told Grossman to carefully determine the length of time needed. To Barrington, this was a very important thing to do. As she explains, “There used to be this idea in times past that employees needed to leave anything considered ‘personal baggage’ outside the workplace, but that made no sense then and still doesn’t. Every employee is an individual, a whole person and that whole person is who walks through the door every day. If HR/workplace practices and policies don’t sustain the whole person, what exactly is the point of those policies and practices? Furthermore, as an employer in the behavioral/mental health sector, how can we advocate for practices which contribute to the overall wellness of our participants but fail to do so for our staff? If any employee has a physical ailment and needs restorative time, we provide that – why should we not take the same stance when our employees require the same for mental health needs? Local, state, and federal guidelines with regards to granting leave set a minimum threshold leaving flexibility for employers looking to extend the time to employees. All accommodations should prioritize the employee’s wellness and do so in a manner that is equitable and without prejudice, thereby fostering a workplace culture where discussions about mental health are embraced. In Emily’s situation, providing the time she needed made sense from a humanistic perspective, a productivity perspective, and frankly, it was just the right thing to do.”
As a result of the medical leave, Grossman’s acute symptoms subsided, and have not flared up since. She has felt more productive than ever. This experience was one of many that led Grossman to realize that CBC was different from past employers, having built a culture of support around its employees living with mental illness. Not only did Grossman feel supported in her time of need, but she also noticed that she and other colleagues who were open about their mental illness were truly valued for what they could contribute to the organization based on their lived experience.
As Grossman says, “I was encouraged to weave my experiences with the mental health system into my trainings where my opinions as a person with lived experience have been valued and appreciated, and I see the same for any colleagues who are open about their previous mental health challenges.”
Grossman believes that if more companies respectfully treated their employees with mental illness as she has been treated by CBC, they would see an increase in loyalty, retention, and initiative. “So many times, people feel like they need to hide their diagnosis from their employers for fear of discrimination. So, when problems arise, they feel that they must come up with excuses. The stress of this can weigh greatly on a person’s already fragile mental health.” One survey showed that 68% of people worry that telling an employer could negatively impact their job security, and that while 50% of employees experienced a mental health struggle, only 1/3 told their employer.1
Additionally, companies suffer. In one survey by Mindshare Partners, 61% of workers said their productivity was affected by their mental health.2 Thus, there is a high cost for companies when they neglect creating a more inclusive culture of support for employees with a mental illness.
It’s been a year now since Grossman returned to work following her month of recovery, and she feels empowered to be back doing what she loves at CBC. To Grossman, the whole experience is an affirmation that she selected the right employer.
Emily Grossman, MA, CPRP, is Training Director at the CBC Training Institute. Amanda Semidey is Senior Vice President of Quality and Dacia Barrington is the Director of Human Resources at Coordinated Behavioral Care (CBC).