The Human Contract: Reminder to Employers That Mental Health Means Business

The Human Contract: Reminder to Employers That Mental Health Means Business

June 14, 2021

To some in the business community, what happened with Naomi Osaka feels straightforward. A rising tennis star, just 23-years-old, broke her contract and was fined. She agreed to a contract with terms — an employment agreement of sorts — and she broke it, and faced the consequences. Simple, right? But the missing component here is employers who forget about the other contract they make when they hire someone… the human contract. You hired a real person, with real emotions — and real breaking points.

The human contract you made when you hired them puts you in a seat of responsibility to support them beyond their IT needs, beyond the free gym membership, but to really support their mental and emotional needs. This isn’t just fluff, and it’s not a small isolated issue of Naomi’s. 1 in 5 Americans are experiencing mental illness [Source: NAMI], and that’s just those who’ve identified it or seeked help in some way. This has affected our global economy in real bottom line losses. By pushing employees over the edge and ignoring the importance of mental health care, depression and anxiety have a massive economic impact. The World Health Organization estimates the global economy is losing an estimated $1 trillion annually due to lost productivity as a result of reduced cognitive performance from mental health challenges. [Source: WHO] What if employers could avoid some of these losses by providing mental health days? Subsidizing a massage or therapy session? Or providing communication channels for peer support? The business gain from positive mental health support in the workplace surely outweighs the trillion in lost productivity. As a business owner, I’d put my money where mental health is.

Naomi may have more money and comfort than many other workers in America, but the thing about mental health is: it doesn’t give a you-know-what about your money. Anxiety takes over. Depression takes over. Suicidal ideation takes over. For some in waves, for others in longer, more intense spells. Some will ask for help, some will suffer silently until it’s too late. Naomi is a brave example of self awareness, of knowing her limits, and of prioritizing her mental health over everything — even withdrawing from a major tournament at the pinnacle of her career. She reminds us that setting a boundary is still one of the best self-care tools around, and we should never apologize for putting our health first.

As Naomi explained the waves of anxiety she faces before press conferences, she said it is in part because she, “wants to give you the best answers [she] can.” I relate to this on a personal level as I struggled with intense anxiety and a desire to be perfect from early on in my childhood. I went to my first party at 14 years old and blacked out the first time I drank. It was quiet. I didn’t have to be perfect. I didn’t feel anxious. From there, I went into a 10-year battle with alcohol. A love-hate relationship in which I binge drank, upset those around me, apologized for what I barely remembered the next day and promised it wouldn’t happen again. And then repeat.

During these years, I continued through the motions of what I was told to do from a young age — go to college, get good grades, get a good job, stay there until you retire. I started at Intel at just 16 years old as an intern (that’s me with my first Intel badge sporting my maiden name, Witherow!), working through every summer and part-time through each school year, including as I moved to Arizona for undergrad. From the outside looking in, I was checking the boxes: getting good grades and holding a pretty awesome job. It was hard to tell the troubles I faced in my personal life. Much like Naomi, it’s easy to pass off everything looking fine on the surface and question her complaints of suffering mental health — but the truth is, there are often only a handful of people who really know what’s going on. Those closest to me, like my parents and now ex-boyfriend, worried incessantly about me. “What would it be this weekend?” they’d fear. Another ticket from the police? Lost her phone? Hospitalized?

On a business trip in Barcelona in 2015, I had one final night of binge drinking and my own wake-up call to say enough is enough. Like Naomi, taking the stance for her mental health, even with everything she had to lose, enough was enough. I found an english speaking Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting that morning of September 14th in Barcelona and haven’t had a drink since. I wound up finding myself through this trying time. I was certain my life was over, I’d blown up a 4-year relationship, I was mentally destroyed, and absolutely lost as to what I would do with my free time without alcohol. Little did I know, my life was only just beginning.

I was certain my life was over, I’d blown up a 4-year relationship, I was mentally destroyed, and absolutely lost as to what I would do with my free time without alcohol. Little did I know, my life was only just beginning.

Appearing on ABC’s Shark Tank Season 10, Episode 22 May 2019

Naomi and I made a change. We stopped and said we need to care for ourselves first if we want to be able to perform as the best version of ourselves;, as well as support, love, or care for others. I went on to leave Intel after 10 wild years there and started my own business, Doughp. It’s a cookie dough company dedicated to amplifying and supporting individuals with stories just like mine. A story I was able to tell on ABC’s Shark Tank and through my nomination as a Forbes 30 Under 30. (Still pinching myself!) Doughp donates a portion of every purchase to support mental health & addiction recovery and are doing everything we can to break the stigma around the issues through #Doughp4Hope. We show this dedication outside and inside the workplace with our mental health policies and in the process of becoming a designated Recovery Friendly Workplace. I do everything I can to let my employees bring their full selves to work, take time when they need the time, encourage self care, and let those formerly taboo conversations about personal struggles enter the workplace freely and be met with support. I’m by no means perfect, but I’m here trying and listening. Just as the employees, employers are human, too.

The more I shared publicly about what Doughp was doing inside for our employee’s mental health, the more requests I got from other employers asking for help, asking how they can bring this into their business. I truly believe that the majority of businesses out there simply don’t know what to do, versus not wanting to do anything. Pointing fingers doesn’t help. I believe we can offer grace and use this example with the French Open as a teachable moment.

I’m in the beginning stages of creating an identifiable certification for businesses that show they’re doing everything they can to allow their employees to feel supported across mental health, addiction recovery, and suicide prevention.These changes can help the employers out there who’d react as the French Open first did. You didn’t uphold your contract. You get fined. How can we help create a framework so employers can see the gray area of this otherwise seemingly black & white discussion?

The need to focus on our mental health became ubiquitous over the last year as we almost all experienced major shifts in our day-to-day life. Beyond the psychological stressors, struggles with mental health also led to substance use disorders rising at alarming rates. Overdose rates have increased over 27% as a result of the pandemic, now creeping upwards of 90,000 deaths in 2020, another historic high.[Source: CDC]

Those statistics are real people — and some of them are your employees. There’s a growing consensus that each of us must remain diligently focused on our own mental health & wellbeing. How are employees supported at your company? How much of themselves can they bring to work? What do they need to hide in order to “save face” and avoid judgement?

An employer’s support of issues like mental health and overall wellbeing has and will continue to play a pivotal role in its ability to attract and retain talent. With the increased strain on our mental health brought upon by the pandemic and felt globally, it’s become more crucial than ever for employers to support their employees in a more holistic way that extends beyond the workplace. By making positive changes in your company to support mental health & addiction recovery — you’ll not only enhance the lives of those in your company today and attract new employees who’ll long to join your team — but you may also be saving a life.

Naomi closed her Twitter post on Monday with, “I want to work with the Tour to see how we can make things better for players, press, and fans.” That should be the headline we’re all reading. How can we work together, employer and employee, to find solutions that work for everyone? We need to create a bi-lateral discussion in which you and your employees can openly share what’s working and, critically, what’s not working — without fear of retribution.

We need to create a bi-lateral discussion in which you and your employees can openly share what’s working and, critically, what’s not working — without fear of retribution.

This massive workplace shift will not come easily. It will need to permeate every level of management down to the first-line employees. This isn’t going to be a new one-off HR benefit that you set & forget. Your company may be filled with many employees feeling just like Naomi, riddled with anxiety and ready to quit. Let’s face it, even you as the business owner may feel like Naomi. The vulnerability that’s needed to hear your employees’ concerns has to start with vulnerability from the top. To many executives, that vulnerability may feel scary. But is it scarier to imagine having all your Naomi’s quit? Or worse.

We have the power to course correct and support our Naomi’s before it’s too late. A shift is underway in how mental health is treated in the workplace, it’s up to each and every employer to help make it happen at their business, supporting the humans they employ and all that comes with us. The time is now and help is coming for you, for your employees, for Naomi.

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