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Skewed View: When Leadership and Mental Health Symptoms Collide

As someone who has been in some level of leadership for over 20 years, I've become accustomed to being constantly evaluated based on outcomes, performance, and my relationships with others, including co-workers, peers, and those who report to me as part of the organizational structure, and rightfully so. Most of my career, I've been silent about my own mental health challenges for the same reasons most people are silent - fear of judgment, fear of somehow being perceived as weak or less capable than the guy or gal next to us, the fear that no one will understand, or worse - no one will care to understand. I once had a seasoned executive say to me upon sharing an article I had written about my anxiety, "Wow, I would have never known you suffer from anxiety. You're such a high performer." Um. Yeah. Crazy, right? I'm not walking the halls waving my hands and screaming or hiding under a desk trembling. 🙄

As I have entered my 40s, and especially after going through a worldwide pandemic as a leader in healthcare, I've decided I'm doing no one, including myself, any favors by remaining silent about mental health challenges. Those who are in my "circle" at work have heard me talk about anxiety through casual conversation, yet most people think of anxiety as being synonymous with stress - and those of us who suffer from a diagnosed anxiety disorder know they are two entirely different things, although they love to pal around together.

I never realized until very recently how intermeshed a mental health diagnosis and someone's assessment of your performance can be. I've always felt the impact of my anxiety and ADHD (and intermittent depression) as it relates to work as just "making everything harder." I never connected my diagnoses to the perception of others of my leadership abilities.

What I've realized is "leadership competencies" that are often used to evaluate effectiveness as a leader can often be difficult to master when you have a mental health diagnosis. Now, it is not new information for me that I can be perceived as "reactive," or that I "make decisions quickly" and need to "slow down and let others feel heard." I am not the most patient human being on the planet, people. I admit it. I've always been a quick decision-maker, just as there are those who need to process a while before making a decision. I need to acknowledge that and give them that space, and I'm working on it. Quick decision-making, and being very direct in my communication can also be perceived as "impulsive or reactive" which is a classic trait of ADHD.

Let's take the competency of "resilience." I now realize that being perceived as having lower resilience can be equated with the fact that I frequently feel overwhelmed. That is called ADHD and anxiety. My brain is never not overwhelmed. That is the baseline. Frankly, making it through every day at work while balancing life in general is a show of resilience at this stage of life. I guess "successfully picked up dog crap, giving a shot of insulin, managing 4 children while successfully completing all work on time and tending to everyone's needs but your own" isn't on the competency checklist for resilience, but maybe it should be.

Even knowing all this, at the end of the day it doesn't matter. I still have to manage my own "stuff" so it doesn't impact others who work for or with me and I've always been about evolving, hence the personal therapist and professional coach that are in the wings preventing me from having a complete breakdown on any given day.

It does, however, further validate my assertions over the past year that mental health in the workplace needs intentional focus, and I'll always remain a staunch advocate for mental health and well-being initiatives in the workplace, wherever I end up in the future. We need to stop SAYING "it's okay to not be okay," and start CREATING A WORK ENVIRONMENT where it actually IS "okay to not be okay." Luckily, I work for an awesome organization that agrees, and there has been lots of intentional focus resulting in positive progress in that area and I like to think my squawking in people's ears about it has something to do with it, even if only a tiny little bit.

I believe strongly that leaders have a responsibility to educate themselves and learn how to support and manage those who are different from themselves while balancing the need for satisfactory, consistent performance and equitable accountability among team members. Perhaps most importantly, leaders should know if someone is brave enough to make themselves vulnerable by sharing their struggles with overwhelm, anxiety, depression, or any other diagnosis, that information should then be used to see the person through a new lens, and find a way to support them within the appropriate parameters. To pretend to empathize with and verbally support someone who makes themselves vulnerable by sharing, only to continue to view, assess and describe the individual's performance to others using only the lens of "corporate competency" is exactly why people don't feel it is safe to talk about mental health in the workplace.

I sure wish they'd make some virtual reality goggles people could wear at work and experience a day in the life of someone who lives with any of the multiple diagnoses people deal with on a daily basis. Perhaps they wouldn't be so quick to judge, or exchange the word overwhelm with martyrdom, or talk about their "resilience factor" as they hand them 12 more projects to complete after they just spilled their guts about their anxiety level, while at the same time reminding them to "make sure to practice work life balance" on the way out the door.

The last thing I'll say is empathy is glaringly left off the list of leadership competencies, which is huge oversight. I happen to excel in that area, and I'll take that over being super "resilient" any damn day. Just sayin.

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[Inserting my own list here] "while successfully completing all work on time and tending to everyone's needs but your own isn't on the competency checklist for resilience, but maybe it should be." Hit home hard. I feel ya. Captured so well.

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