Expert: ‘Culture of Trust’ Necessary to Deal with Employee Mental Health Challenges

Michelle Dickinson has learned a lot about the effects of mental health challenges during the course of her lifetime.

First, she became the caregiver for a mother diagnosed as bipolar. Later in life, she herself was diagnosed with depression as she fought her way through a “very painful” divorce.

Through it all Dickinson, now a workplace mental health strategist and resilience coach with New Jersey-based Trifecta Mental Health, LLC, has developed strategies for working her way through the challenges.

Now, having written her memoir, “Breaking Into My Life,” Dickinson has developed a successful career advising companies on ways to deal with mental health challenges among their employees.

Dickinson shared her story – and her advice – in a webinar hosted by Corp! Magazine, the Best & Brightest Companies and the National Association for Business Resources.

“This work is so deeply personal to me,” she told participants in the webinar. “I have been affected by mental health personally, and I have a lot to say about this topic. I talk about common mental health myths, ways we can preserve our own emotional well-being.

“Mental health has really been the tapestry of my life,” she added. “I grew up loving and caring for my bipolar mother. At times it was a lot like riding a roller coaster, lots of highs and lows, lots of mania, lots of deep, dark, depressing moments.

“All of those experiences shaped me. I learned a lot about mental health, I learned a lot about what it feels like from the lens of a caregiver, how paralyzing it can feel at times not being able to do enough for the people you love who are suffering. That experience taught me compassion, as well. It really shaped the woman I’ve become today.”

Dickinson spent 19 years working in the pharmaceutical industry – “I started as a secretary who couldn’t type,” she said – eventually working her way to being a director of regulatory quality.

During her career at a Fortune 500 company, Dickinson built what she called the “fastest-growing” employee mental health resource group. She said she never really talked much about her experience, but a colleague who’d heard the story of her caring for her mother nominated her for a TEDx talk and, the next thing she knew, she was “on the red dot” of a TEDx stage “telling the story of my mom.”

“I started to realize the power that storytelling has when we want to normalize this conversation around mental health,” she said. “That really inspired me to go on and write my memoir, with the goal of humanizing mental health. If we can humanize mental health and people could understand it they might not fear it as much.”

And then something unexpected happened. Dickinson was diagnosed with depression “in my 40s” going through a divorce – “What the whole experience taught me was no one is immune to mental illness,” she said – but, thanks to her experience with her mother, she was comfortable seeking clinical help.

That didn’t seem to help her at work. Despite the fact she was building this successful employee resource group, Dickinson didn’t get the support of her leaders, who “didn’t extend the compassion to me” when she was diagnosed with depression.

“That really lit the fire within me to say, ‘we can do better, we can create more cultures that are compassionate and performing,’” Dickinson said. “I went on and started my own company because I wanted to be part of the solution.”

And it’s a problem that needs a solution. According to Dickinson, some 42% of the global work force has experienced a decline in their mental health since the beginning of the pandemic. Some 200 million work days are lost to depression, and 69% of employees are burning out working from home.

“It’s real … Whether you know about it or hear about it, people have had some sort of decline,” she said. “When you look at the data, we have so much productivity lost due to mental health.”

Many of these problems exist, according to Dickinson, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s a stigma attached to seeking help for a mental health challenge. Second, there are several myths about mental health problems that are still hanging around. Among them:

  • “I can’t do anything for a person with a mental health problem.”

Dickinson said only 44% of adults with diagnosed mental health problems receive the needed treatment for what they’re dealing with.

“Friends, families and colleagues can be those very important influencers to help someone get the treatment and services they need,” Dickinson said. “Reaching out, letting them know you’re available to listen, bridging them to clinical support, learning and sharing the facts about mental health … treating people who are struggling with respect, and refusing to define them by their diagnosis are really important things we can do to help make a difference and get people comfortable with accessing care that’s available.”

  • “My people leaders have emotional intelligence and know how to engage conversations around mental and emotional well-being with their staff.”

Dickinson pointed out that many people leaders aren’t even comfortable with their own mental health, “so how can they be comfortable extending themselves to someone else around their mental health?”

“This is where I see the greatest opportunity,” she said. “Often if you’re not comfortable with your own mental health you’re going to be more liable to look away and assume they’re just going to work it out.

“Some leaders are afraid they’re going to say the wrong thing, so they just say nothing,” she added. “We still have leaders managing mental health challenges from a performance perspective. We all know that’s a recipe for disaster.”

  • “Mental health challenges are the result of not having mental toughness.”

Dickinson said she’s encountered people who believe this, though mental toughness has nothing to do with it.

“Mental illness is said to affect 1-in-3 … it’s biological, environmental … all of these things contribute to brain changes and social stressors that impact us,” she said. “Regardless of what we think, no one is immune to mental illness. Life events can trigger those mental health challenges, so it has nothing to do with being mentally tough.”

  • “You shouldn’t talk about mental health at work.”

“Reaching out to a coworker or an employee who appears to be struggling and inquiring about how they’re doing can absolutely improve outcomes,” Dickinson said. “We need to remind ourselves that outreach is critical in developing an organization and a culture of caring. Looking away won’t resolve the situation. Stepping over it won’t resolve the situation. We can actually bridge people to (seek) care.”

  • “People with mental health needs, even those who are managing their mental illness, cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.”

It’s a myth Dickinson said “unfortunately … still exists.” There’s a fear that disclosing the mental health challenge will be taken as a sign of weakness.

“The reality is people with mental health problems are just as productive as other employees,” Dickinson explained. “Employers who hire people with mental health problems report good attendance and punctuality as well as motivation, good work and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees who do not have a mental health challenges.

When employees with mental health problems receive effective treatment, she pointed out, it can result in lower total medical costs, increased productivity, lower absenteeism and decreased disability costs.

  • “Employees who struggle with mental health challenges will access company-provided employee assistance programs and benefits offerings.”

The reality, according to Dickinson, is no matter “how prevalent the conversation is now” coming out of Covid, there are a lot of people who still have trepidation around accessing resources.

“We have to remember that it all stems from how we’re raised, how we’ve experienced mental health in general in our society … those barriers are very real,” Dickinson said. “We can offer support all day long, but we have to do more to remove the uncomfortable aspect of accessing care.”

There are things companies can do, she said, to help. Remembering and acknowledging what the country has been through during the pandemic is a start.

“When you think about what we’ve been through – the magnitude of loss, the change we’ve endured, the financial instability – the whole gamut, we have to remember just how prevalent this is for our people,” she said. “The second piece is cultivating trust every single day. That means maintaining an atmosphere of compassion and trust so that your staff feels comfortable coming to you and saying, ‘I need a mental health day. I’m dealing with something.’

“They’re never going to feel comfortable coming to you if you’re not cultivating that environment of trust and communication.”