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More leaders need to talk about their mental health challenges. Here’s how to start

The COO of Boomi shares his personal story and says it’s time we stepped up and showed how seeking help doesn’t mean we’re weak—it just means we aren’t alone.

More leaders need to talk about their mental health challenges. Here’s how to start
[Photo: Sasha Freemind/Unsplash]
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If I’ve spoken to you in person, the first thing you might notice about me is I walk with a limp. It was as a result of an injury that I sustained between my junior and senior year in high school—over 30 years ago. Physically, it took me three months to recover and walk again.

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I’m sure you’ve heard grueling stories about what it takes to relearn every movement after a spinal cord injury. It hurts. It’s frustrating. It exhausts you. But for years, I ignored how it impacted me mentally. All through college and into my first job, I acted like I was okay. The reality was, I had grown distant and was no longer the best son, friend, significant other, or consultant I wanted to be.

In 1998, I was on a plane, returning home from a client meeting. It hit me suddenly that I was unwell, though I didn’t quite understand what I was feeling. I only knew that I was depleted in mind and body. As I later learned, this “feeling” was a years-long gradual ramp that ultimately was both physical and mental. Many who have experienced mental health issues understand that the two are often inextricably linked. This feeling festered over several years and culminated on a plane ride home.

I decided to seek professional help to regain control of my life and my mental health.

I don’t often hear that candor from executives at technology companies every day. However, I’ve been open with my story, in my personal life, and at Boomi. By being open about the challenges I’ve faced, I hope to encourage others to do the same and create a work culture that acknowledges mental health is as much a part of well-being as physical health and makes it a priority in your workforce.

By sharing my story publicly, I challenge other executives to highlight their own mental health struggles. It’s time we stepped up and showed how seeking help doesn’t mean we’re weak—it just means we aren’t alone.

Life is very hard right now for many. I recognize that only scrapes the surface of the pain and struggles people are experiencing today. Everyone is juggling something different, and it weighs on each of us differently.

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Before the pandemic, 25% of American adults reported experiencing a depressed mood. As I write this, it’s 50%. Many of the typical outlets people used to cope with their mental health (going to the gym, seeing friends and family, traveling on vacation, etc.) aren’t available even as some businesses begin to reopen. If they are, there’s a worry that we’ll return to shelter-in-place again soon. This adds more stress to lives already fraught with tension and uncertainty.

I truly believe that by sharing our stories, as leaders, we can help to normalize mental health in our workplaces. By doing so, we can create a more open, welcoming, and safe space for our employees. We can also develop greater empathy for one another, enabling a stronger workplace culture.

In my journey to address my own mental health challenges, I’ve adopted a “work to live, not live to work” philosophy, and I want to make sure my employees can do the same. Having a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body, and I try to maintain mental and physical fitness with workouts, taking mental health breaks, going out to walk my dog, or taking a day off to read or play golf—but not discuss work.

I have worked to prioritize mental health personally and professionally over the past several years, but I am still learning. Below are a few best practices that I’ve found to be helpful for myself and for my employees.

Encourage employees to take time and self-assess their health

This is my number one piece of advice to leaders who want to make mental health a priority for their business. While I don’t want to correlate a pandemic to a spinal cord injury, they both highlight major life shifts that happen “overnight.” I didn’t take the time to take care of my mental health, and I should have. I’ve learned since then and give my employees the time and space to take care of their mental health needs.

Show employees that it’s okay to take time off for mental health

While cliché, “practice what you preach” is appropriate here. For instance, I share with my employees when I’m taking time off, even if I’m not traveling or, since the pandemic, can’t go anywhere. It’s also important to check in with employees and make sure they’re achieving balance before, during, and after the workday. This means checking in with yourself, too. For example, one of my goals is to participate in Boomi’s virtual morning yoga, but it keeps getting filled up before I can get in.

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Listen and implement real action

As a next step, leaders must take the time to listen to employees about mental health and implement recommendations to help them address it. My goal is for our staff to be transparent and open in communications, accept that people need support, and start sharing ideas with the whole team about how to better tackle these topics.

One initiative we’ve implemented is listening intently to our employees, anecdotally, and through surveys. For instance, based on one employee survey a few weeks into working from home, we asked our employees to give us feedback on communications, how they’re doing, their work-life balance, childcare challenges, etc. After feedback that too many video calls were stressing employees, Boomi implemented no-meetings Wednesdays. This gives them ensured flexibility to take care of family members or other urgent matters. While it may not be perfect, it’s certainly helped people “catch up” with work on Wednesdays with fewer meetings and affords more balance.

Don’t set a mental health initiative and never go back to it

An accepting culture doesn’t persist without constant reminders. Nor are mental health struggles solved overnight. Both require long-term commitments. Creating a workplace culture that prioritizes mental health is something that needs to be fostered over time and reinvented as daily pressures shift and new global issues arise. Just like we check in frequently with employees about career growth and the next steps, we need to do the same for mental health, during these challenging times and long after.

It’s paramount in the high-stress environment, especially in the tech industry, that we’re taking time to be kind to our minds. More importantly, we’re encouraging our employees and leading the way for them to take time if they need it, to pause to breathe, stay in touch with their coworkers, and most importantly, seek help if they need it.

As I said before, asking for help doesn’t mean you’re weak; it just means you’re not alone. That’s the message leaders should share with employees as they tell their mental health story. When we talk about it, we normalize it, and we can make sure everyone receives the help they need. No one should struggle alone.


Chris Port is the chief operating officer of Boomi, a Dell Technologies business.