Sooooo…by now you’ve more than likely seen or heard about the Meghan Markel and Prince Harry interview with Oprah, whether you wanted to or not. I was hesitant to watch because I don’t understand the fascination with the royals. Why do we care about this antiquated system of classism, sexism and yes, racism? But I must admit I experienced a bit of FOMO, so I checked it out.
First, as a black woman, nothing Meghan said was a shock to me. Not. One. Thing. I liken Markel’s experience to that of black women in the workplace; being singled out, being made out to appear hostile, and having distressing work related concerns that are never adequately addressed. When Markel mentioned that she went to “the firm” to get assistance with her mental health and was rebuffed, it was sad, but not uncommon. Many people of color do not feel protected in the workplace.
I remember working for an extremely dysfunctional nonprofit that did diversity and inclusion work. They most definitely did not abide by their own supposed values. I was overworked, undervalued, bullied by my boss and experienced a host of hostile behaviors including obvious microaggressions. I also began battling a new health diagnosis and trying to navigate all of it took a toll on my mental well-being. I was physically and mentally burnt out. I didn’t sleep well, didn’t put as much effort into my appearance and started getting to work late. I also became very apathetic about my work. I typically strive for excellence but “good” became “good enough”. I went to my boss, the source of much of my distress and informed him that I needed reasonable accommodations, something employees can legally request. I was denied.
I waited for a month while this toxic little man went back and forth with the board having clandestine meetings about me. I was never included in any conversations about my own well-being. And in the end I was denied my request. They came up with some half-assed compromise that wouldn’t have allowed for my full recovery. I wound up putting myself on a leave of absence and eventually quitting. It was extremely disappointing and to be honest, hurtful, especially since right before I joined the organization an employee had committed suicide. I’d hoped that in light of that tragedy management would have extended empathy. It felt like damn, these people really don’t care if I die.
I remember prior to leaving the organization for my leave I met with coworkers and my boss to let them know my situation. (It was a very small organization with only five in-house employees total.) I wound up breaking down in tears as I expressed that my mental health was crumbling. It was very painful to talk about. One coworker showed genuine emotion. The others pretended to care. My boss offered some empty words of support that I knew he didn’t mean. I hated crying in front of them, that I was vulnerable in front of people who didn’t care. But I couldn’t help it. I was at a breaking point. Even though I didn’t get the support I needed and deserved, I had to recognize that I was strong enough to ask for it.
People of color deserve support, and they deserve to ask for it, even if we have a feeling we won’t be accommodated. Going to your employer and revealing something as personal as your mental health status can be scary and it can be a risk. But grinding yourself into a pulp and jeopardizing your physical and mental health is riskier. Forfeiting your health for a job is never worth it, no matter what anyone says. You have the right to ask your place of employment to recognize and respond to your health. Even if you don’t receive the support you request, there is power in asking. There is power in knowing your own worth enough to take the risk to ask for the support you need. Smart employers will appreciate the transparency, which is a sign of leadership, and do what they can.
Making the decision to share your mental health status with your employer will entail assessing company culture and the professionalism of those in management. If you don’t feel you’re working in an environment that will respond appropriately to your mental health needs, you may have to find a way to ask for support without mentioning it. For instance, request time off without mentioning your depression. But if for example you have anxiety about going back into the office due to your experience with covid-19 and wish to remain remote, you may have to be specific about your mental health.
If you decide to take that brave step and ask your company to support your mental health, whatever the outcome, know that it is well within your right to make the request. Employers, especially during this emotionally taxing time, would be wise to create space for employees to be more open about their mental health challenges and demonstrate a commitment to its workers. If you are in an environment that proves the psychological needs of its employees isn’t valued, it may be an opportunity to reevaluate your commitment to that company.
As always, wishing you good mental health.