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  • Deb Urbanik

Are you inhibiting an anxious genius?

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

The metallic click of the closing of the door signaled the start of the meeting. “Bathrooms are down the hall and you’ll be given a break at 10am. Until then I want technology off and your attention here,” the leader cheerfully and authoritatively says. Alyssa, the latest addition to the management team, spent hours preparing ideas to share with her new peers. But the kickoff of the meeting was igniting something very different from the excitement she felt last night.  Alyssa’s anxiety was jolting to life. Anticipation was morphing into a deepening sense of panic. Her heart started to race, and her mind started an all-too-familiar negotiation with her body. “This is not big deal, you’ve got this” she told herself. “You want to be here. Breathe.” 

“Let’s go around the room and share your name, the area you are representing and one thing you want to get out of this meeting. Let’s start here,” the facilitator pointed to the person across the table from Alyssa.  One by one attendees complied. Alyssa wasn’t registering anything they said. As each person spoke, the reaction inside her body intensified.  The circle closed in and her heartbeat accelerated, her face flushed, her palms began to sweat. If she could just get out of this room, she’d be OK. But she couldn’t, she was trapped. It was her turn now and all eyes were on her. “I’m Alyssa” she stammered, eyes filling with tears. “I’m the new engineering lead and I…I just want the same thing that John said.” Alyssa turned desperately to the person next to her, and taking her agitated cue, that person took their turn. She stared down at the table feeling lingering, questioning stares. She wanted to disappear. All of her great ideas sat inside her like a cold pile of rocks. She felt embarrassed and ashamed. “I can’t do this,” she thought. 

Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) shows that one in five adults suffers from mental illness. If you are in a meeting with ten people it is likely that two of them are battling challenges that may include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and more. Data also tells us that 60% of American adults do not seek medical treatment for these challenges. This is often attributed to social stigma. Corporate America, often focused on moving faster, smarter, and stronger, is only in the infancy of realizing the impact mental illness is having on their businesses and their employees.  Leaders are beginning to add the emotional health to their wellness programs and ensure that Employee Assistance Programs are available. But the most important steps to addressing mental illness in the workplace is the work needed to shift attitudes and behaviors to create cultures of acceptance where people with SMI (serious mental illness) can thrive. 

Organizational culture change is a long journey, but it is fueled by small steps. Cultures cannot be dictated, they create themselves based on internal and external influences.  The best way to move toward a culture where mental illness is accepted is to begin to introduce influencers that will create that state. Storytelling by people who have overcome SMI, awareness campaigns around protections (Americans with Disabilities Act), manager training, employee workshops and resource groups could all serve to set an open and accepting environment where people feel safe to express their challenges and their needs. 

Let’s reimagine Alyssa’s meeting experience in a company where people have been trained on creating a work environment that would support employees with SMI. Alyssa is excited about her first meeting as the new engineering lead. As she enters the room and takes her seat she feels the familiar start of her nervous engine. Her heart is racing as the meeting kicks off and the speaker says; “Welcome to our planning session.  We want this to be an enjoyable meeting for all so here is our format:

·     As noise levels allow, we will keep the door open.

·     While we hope to have your full attention and input, we realize you may need to step out for a mental break.  Please feel free to do-so quietly so as not to interrupt the session.  There is a planned break at 10am.

·     Everyone’s ideas are valuable here and we hope all will contribute. If public speaking is difficult for you, please feel free to connect with a teammate or come see me during the break so your thoughts are captured.

·     We are a team that supports each other to be our best and we do so without judgement or ridicule.

Let’s start with an ice-breaker. Pair up with the person next to you and find at least three things in common and share one thing you’d like to accomplish today.  One or both of you may then share with the larger group.”

The rev of Alyssa’s nervous engine lowers a little. She turns to the person next to her and they laugh as they realize they live only a block away from each other.  When it comes to the one big thing she wants to accomplish she shyly shares her idea with her new colleague and his patience and enthusiasm strengthen her.  She finds the courage to tell him that she struggles with public speaking and her teammate empathizes and is happy to be their speaker. In the afternoon she steps out briefly to calm herself. She returns to a reassuring nod from the leader who brings her back into the fold. The day wraps and Alyssa is tired but happy.  Her idea has been selected as one of three that will be incorporated into the yearly plan and she has met two co-workers that she feels a great connection with. Because of the open and accepting environment, Alyssa has taken a positive step forward and so has her organization who will benefit from her brilliant idea.  

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