One in 10 people are living with a mental health diagnosis, and likely that includes someone you work with or manage every day. The global pandemic, social unrest, strain on the economy, remote work, and everything in between that we experienced in 2020 likely caused your employees to be pushed to the edge of their mental and emotional health, forcing them to tread water or worse, remain stuck in a personal crisis.
As leaders, it’s our responsibility to check in on our employees and tune our awareness into the mental and emotional health of our teams. It’s important to understand why they may be experiencing something out of the ordinary and how you can help, something made all the more difficult in an era of management through video meetings. Yet, for companies that create a safe environment for employees to bring their true and authentic selves to work, they will experience greater and more meaningful relationships and see the quality of work increase tremendously.
These words come straight from experience. When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my shame kept me from taking the medicine I needed to bring my true self to work and be the best version of myself. As I chose to own my mental health diagnosis and step in front of it, I began to feel surrounded by trigger phrases that would kick me down even more with each word. They left me feeling less and less safe to share my diagnosis with the outside world and created an unspoken distance between myself and my coworkers.
A little bit of knowledge can go a long way in not triggering someone with a mental health diagnosis and putting them in a vulnerable place. It’s essential we are aware of phrases that may seem harmless yet destroy an employee’s confidence. Here are five trigger phrases that could unintentionally leave someone with a mental health diagnosis in a place of vulnerability:
This can nonchalantly be used to describe someone we disagree with or to discredit them rather than to truly describe a mental health diagnosis. These unkind words can be used as a weapon to impact the public perception of them—not ok.
It’s controversial for some to consider our state of mental health as an illness. To receive the ongoing treatment some of us need to manage our symptoms, it is necessary to have a medical diagnosis of an illness or disease. But it isn’t how we would want to describe our permanent state. “They’re ill” is a trigger phrase because many associate the mentally ill with sociopaths, child abusers, and others who hurt society. No one wants to be compared to them. Unwell and mentally ill are two different descriptions—if someone isn’t able to manage their current condition, they might be considered unwell. But if they’re in crisis, it could be a mental illness. No one is in a permanent state of unwellness because they’ve received a diagnosis. Be weary of these negative identifiers to describe mental health.
Bipolar is often used to describe someone’s behaviors by someone else who doesn’t understand them or the diagnosis. Even worse, it’s thrown around casually to cast judgment on normal mood changes in individuals. For someone who is actually bipolar and has experienced wild rides of emotions this is especially isolating. Don’t use bipolar disorder or any mental health diagnosis as an explanation of behavior you don’t understand especially if you aren’t a licensed medical professional. If that person confided their diagnosis in you and trusts you as a colleague or more importantly, a leader, you have just destroyed the trust in your relationship, even if you were talking about someone else.
‘They have daddy issues’
Daddy issues, mommy issues, any type of “issue” that explains someone’s behavior and is used to discredit them. I fall into the daddy issues category as my dad committed suicide when I was 9 years old, and I have been sexually assaulted by multiple men. I’ve had to overcome patterns with the masculine as a result of these experiences and quite frankly, my “issues” are only relevant in the workplace if they are actually impacting my performance in the workplace. Chances are if you are talking about someone else’s issues, you could use some time exploring your own.
‘They are (insert judgment)’
I’ve experienced firsthand conversations with people who judge others based on their values and views. Leaders often share these judgments without awareness of how they impact others. Put simply, if you’re judging other people, you’re also judging everyone else. As leaders it’s important we work to reconcile and eliminate our judgmental thoughts to ensure our employees feel heard, safe, and accepted. Judgment can quickly go unnoticed or unchecked in an office setting. It can escalate quickly, too, especially in a group setting. When one person throws out a judgmental comment, it spreads like wildfire to everyone else. Judging others? Not cool.
These five trigger phrases create a home for shame in the office—not a safe place for those suffering. If you’ve realized you’ve said one of these trigger phrases in the office, it’s ok. We all have—even me. I’m still working on not judging others to let off my own steam or receive approval from others. If you find yourself in this situation in the future, or when it’s too late, here are a few steps you can take.
First, forgive yourself. We don’t know what we don’t know, and it isn’t productive to judge yourself for having a blind spot. It’s ok, we all do. Focus on taking action to be the leader you want to be in this moment, rather than a leader of the past.
Second, activate the triple-A: acknowledge, apologize, and act. I learned these three simple and effective tips from Chris Brogan in his book Trust Agents. If you find yourself in the moment or after a conversation saying one of these trigger phrases to an employee with or without a mental health diagnosis, it’s important to have the courage to own it. It doesn’t matter who’s in the room at that time. To take it one step further, ask them to join your accountability team to shed light on your blind spots.
Next, do a weekly review and self check-in. Where did you knock it out of the park? What worked? More importantly, what didn’t work and how can you adjust? You may notice your conversations turn from judgmental comments here and there to conversations full of compassion, empathy, and understanding. This is a huge step, but it does take time. Keep track of your progress and as a result, you’ll see this trickle down through the rest of your organization.
Last, but not least, create an action plan for future slipups when they happen. And yes, they will happen. As your awareness grows you may notice more slipups since you’re paying closer attention to your conversations and how you lead your team. But each slipup should be celebrated because each one is a step towards a kinder you.
When developing your plan, keep it simple. One example is to acknowledge the behavior in your head, stop it immediately, and acknowledge the person you’re speaking to by letting them know you’re working to eliminate negative behaviors and patterns.
As business leaders, the cycle starts with us. If we stop judging ourselves, we’ll naturally stop judging others. And if you find yourself repeating these trigger phrases, it’s time to rethink your leadership strategy.
More than ever, we need transformational leaders who are inspired to unlock everyone’s potential, including their own. It starts with trust earned through conscious and unconscious actions and conversations. Your team is always watching. You must hold yourself accountable and lead by example. As a result, you create a safe space for everyone, but especially those with a mental diagnosis.
Nichole Kelly is the VP of growth at Windward Consulting where she focuses on elevating and demonstrating value and competitive advantage to Fortune 1,000 companies. Kelly also holds leadership positions at RedMonocle and Helix Market Research and is an organizational change expert and thought leader who created The Bipolar Executive to be a voice in the conversation on mental wellness in corporate America.