Seattle HR Collective: It’s Time to Talk About Mental Health at Work

June 26, 2019
June 26, 2019 HRCollective

Seattle HR Collective: It’s Time to Talk About Mental Health at Work

Years ago, from an outsider’s standpoint, James Pratt appeared to have it all with a successful career, a wife and children. He feels very lucky in life, but on his journey, there was something that he couldn’t quite figure out about himself. He would get things done on the job and have a lot of good ideas while outworking his colleagues. Then in other extremes, he would have trouble feeling motivated and productive. He graduated with a computer science degree and started a company that got acquired shortly thereafter. Eventually, he moved from the UK when he got a job in Seattle and thrived over the years in various roles with a few companies. 

However, about seven years ago, Pratt woke up at Harborview Medical Center. He was admitted with a 0.35 blood alcohol level. A nurse asked him a question that changed the course of his life. She asked him if he was trying to kill himself. Initially, Pratt laughed it off and thought it was an odd question. But then he thought harder and he had to respond and say “yes”. He broke down crying and realized he had been using his confidence to mask a big problem and had been using alcohol as a way to cope with his shifting moods. Pratt started attending AA meetings and got sober. 

Life got better for Pratt but then things started going downhill again a few years later. He spent a string of days considering suicide. During a session with his couples therapist and wife, the therapist advised he see a psychiatrist.  Pratt had done a lot to better himself, but there was something else wrong. He went to see the psychiatrist who asked to speak with his friends and family members and after she connected with them, came to the conclusion that Pratt was Type II Bipolar. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Bipolar is a mood disorder that includes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks”. Pratt began to understand why his moods were so extreme and why he had abused alcohol (addiction can be common for those with bipolar). He came to the realization that life would never be normal for him. He would have abnormal highs and lows and had to come to terms with accepting his mental illness. Bipolar disorder alone “affects approximately 5.7 million adult Americans, or about 2.6% of the U.S. population age 18 and older every year” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 

Pratt turned his focus more on working with people and took a job in Human Resources. Instead of asking for a cash signing bonus he asked for an ICF coaching course. Having come to terms with the fact that bipolar was often misunderstood, he took the following notes and actions when it comes to mental health and the workplace:  

We’re not talking enough about mental illness in the workplace

We need to have conversations about mental illness. Successful people are silently dealing with it. Some only see the extremes with mental illness and not the people who are silently dealing with it on a day to day basis. Pratt had a friend who was professionally successful but wound up killing herself after a battle with depression. He went to her memorial service which included two hours of positive, happy stories about her which omitted her battle with depression and the fact that she had died by suicide. Too often we talk about depression and suicide together. People can live decades with a mental illness such as depression but not talk about it. 

Silent Superheroes

Pratt started his podcast, Silent Superheroes so there was an outlet for people to share their stories with dealing with mental illnesses at work. Each episode, he talks with a person about his or her issue varying from depression, anxiety, bipolar, and so on, how that person found out they had his or her condition, how it affected their ability to work and how their workplace accommodated his or her condition. 

People wait too long to seek help 

Pratt has quickly realized that many people too often wait too long before seeking help. Things have to get pretty bad before people decide to seek professional help. He advises that if anyone feels something is wrong that talking with a friend or family member can be a good start. 

A lot of people do not have the support or understanding from their managers to allow them to work in a way that keeps them in good shape. Communicating with managers about one’s overall well-being can help with finding a better work rhythm or a different role within an organization.  

What to consider when seeking help 

Finding the right fit when it comes to working with a professional within the mental health field can be challenging. It’s important to feel comfortable and not judged when confiding in someone. You don’t have to put up with bad care. It can be hard to find the right match but when you do, it’s worth the wait. 

Being a supportive HR manager/leader: How to help employees who are struggling with mental health issues 

  1. Physical Health- How physical health is handled in the workplace is a start. Are people coming to work while they’re sick? If that’s an acceptable thing then it’s hard to believe that mental health would even be okay to address. Work on adjusting the company’s approach to both forms.
  2. Leadership- If someone from your company leadership has a mental illness and is comfortable with sharing with the team, that can mean a lot. Pratt is open about being bipolar at Gravity Payments and it has given others the courage to come forward with his or her own issues and get support.
  3. Health Benefits- if the health insurance that your company is getting benefits from does not cover or provide affordable coverage for those seeking mental health treatment, consider exploring coverage with another provider. Arm your employees with the information about the provided insurance that challenges denial of coverage from the insurance provider.
  4. Courses & Training- First of all, if someone is suicidal, consider calling 911. Courses are available in Mental Health First Aid and Suicide Prevention are available for HR managers and other leaders to take so they are more prepared to help a colleague in crisis. The EAP can help leaders obtain guidance. Most HR leaders are not licensed mental health professionals but providing those in need with access to professionals is key. In addition, locally, the University of Washington offers training in Forefront Suicide Prevention.
  5. Applications- Modern Health and Spring Health are applications that companies can be provided to employees if they are seeking or exploring ways to examine his or her own mental health.

Thanks again to James Pratt, podcast host of Silent Superheroes for sharing his story at our June Meetup!


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