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04.08.2021 By Caleb Hoover, Associate

Normalizing the Conversation: My Depression and Anxiety Makes Me Better At My Job

Detroit skyline taken from across the water at sunset

This past year-plus has been comprised of immense self-exploration and self-care for myself. As I am writing this from the exact spot I have been working from, I am not the same man that first set up his dual-screen at home in March 2020. During this time, I’ve been thrashed around more than the shores of West Michigan – a global pandemic, a global uprising, the death of a loved one, an engagement to the woman I have loved for more than ten years, and all the time in the world to reflect has enlightened me to my depression and anxiety.

One in five American adults live with mental illness each year and an estimated 7.1% of American adults are living with major depressive disorder. A report by Blue Cross Blue Shield found that depression diagnoses are rising at a faster rate for millennials than for any other generation – the generation that will soon be entering the upper management and leadership roles within corporate America as decision-makers.

My exploration into my depression and anxiety (let’s call it “DNA”) was not a journey I set out on intentionally. The tragic death of my future sister-in-law was the catalyst for my (what I thought was) preventative mental health maintenance for the grief that is surely to follow a loss. Implementing coping mechanisms such as journaling, reading, meditation, therapy, and healthy lifestyle changes served as a lifejacket through this tough time, however, I found myself feeling the immense sadness and deep emotions of grief but my mind wasn’t focused on the loss. The DNA would roll in and out like the waves of Lake Michigan.

I may have tried to distract or block out the DNA in the past, but would usually end up thrashed around, under water, struggling for air. However this version of me – armed with a six-shooter of coping mechanisms and the perspective of the last year-plus – is beginning to calmly duck dive under the waves until they pass.

Harnessing this energy and accepting my reality has helped me understand that I’ve been living with my DNA as long as I can remember. In the past I would block the time period from my memory or chalk it up to “seasonal blues” – but then why would I find myself crying in my backyard on a 90 degree day on the Fourth of July? Why do I often lay awake at night mortified by my own impermanence? Why do I sometimes feel like an imposter when I receive praise at work? My DNA is not so seasonal and I now know that is very okay.

In my time of reflection I have identified times where my DNA has hindered me from being the left-brain, problem-solving, email-launching, copywriting PR pro that I am on most weekdays. I’ve also identified instances where my DNA has allowed me extreme empathy and intangible awareness to build relationships with team members, clients, media and everyone in between; it has allowed me to pour emotion out of my fingertips  in various forms of writing I may find myself in on a daily basis; it has allowed me to enter the right-brain, imaginative, holistic, inspired creative that lays within me, and it allows me to care more about the humans I work with and for more than a brand. Tell me now – does my DNA seem more like a positive or a negative in the workplace?

Managers and leadership can and must support employee mental health through a variety of avenues – five of which I have laid out for you below stemming from a Harvard Business Review article. How many of these are you currently implementing with your teams?

  • Be Vulnerable. Do you also live with DNA? Being honest about this will help everyone you work with feel more comfortable and will contribute to normalizing talking about mental health.
  • Model Healthy Behaviors. Don’t just talk about supporting mental health. Be about supporting mental health.
  • Build a culture of connection. Intentionally check in on the mental health of your teams. You will feel more connected with your team, and it may just contribute to productivity.
  • Offer flexibility. If someone experiences DNA at a certain time of day, wouldn’t you prefer they work when they’re feeling able? Offer alternatives that may work better than traditional hours.
  • Overcommunicate. Lack of information and communication can certainly contribute to one’s DNA, at least for me it does. A steady flow of good, accurate information will establish a healthy, two-way communication.

Are you in a management, mentor or performance champion position but you may not feel comfortable talking about these topics? Or what happens if some who supports you isn’t okay and you’re unsure to of how to handle? That’s perfectly okay. One thing to note comes from another Harvard Business Review article that analyzes ‘toxic positivity’. The term refers to those who send “sunshine and good vibes” when someone is going through a tumultuous period of their life or mental health – I’ve had days where no amount of virtual sunshine or electronic good vibes can guide me through my storms. The toxic positivity can invalidate feelings and experiences and only worsen the situation – see below for some alternatives for the next time you have the urge to give a pep talk or to send sunshine and rainbows to someone in a tough spot:

  • It’s okay to not feel okay right now.
  • You should feel whatever emotions or sensations you want/need to feel.
  • Take your time. I’m with you and I’m here to listen.
  • You’re allowed to feel this way. Your feelings are valid.

My hope is that I can look back on this post in any given period of time and to feel this is redundant, that our society, corporate culture and agency are all doing such a great job in addressing the mental health needs of the humans that dedicate at least 40 hours a week to this craft. Until then, I’ll continue my role as an advocate and open book as I continue my journey of acceptance of living with my DNA.

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