When Madalyn Parker, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based web developer, just needed a couple of days break, she could have followed a time-honored tradition: request a day off for something like food poisoning or vague flu or cold symptoms, or not offer a reason at all. Instead she took the unusual step of emailing her team to say, “I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.”
Ben Congleton, her CEO at Olark Live Chat software, didn’t have to respond, but he did, and his feedback to her was even more uncommon than her openness. It attracted viral attention—including a shout outfrom Sheryl Sandberg— when Parker posted the exchange on her Twitter feed.
“When the CEO responds to your out of the office e-mail about taking sick leave for mental health and reaffirms your decision,” Parker wrote in her tweet featuring Congleton’s note. “I just wanted to personally thank you for sending e-mails like this,” he had written. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health—I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations.”
He also told Parker that she was an example to everyone for her efforts to normalize mental health problems. (According to her Twitter feed, Parker suffers from depression.)
Thousands of people have since cheered for both Parker and Congleton, on Twitter and Facebook. Many also shared their own stories about going public at work, which were overwhelmingly negative.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five Americans will suffer a mental health issue in a given year, and 18.5% of US adults experience and anxiety disorder. And yet, as Congleton wrote in a Medium post, “Even in the safest environment it is still uncommon to be direct with your coworkers about mental health issues.”
Unfortunately, that’s because directness at work comes with risks. Even as the wider culture has come to talk about depression, anxiety, bipolar and other disorders, employers are often unaware of laws that protect employees from discrimination and firings due to mental health issues. Incidents of bullying are still common.
Hospital and health care workers see firsthand the damage caused by unchecked mental health problems. As the editor of Hospital and Health Networks once wrote, in hospital settings, “an odd mix of silence, flip talk and stereotyping surrounds and isolates people with psychological disorders and the loved ones who care for them.” Physicians have high rates of suicide, in part because they very rarely seek mental health help. The high-pressure tech industry is also still coming to terms with its own little-discussed depression and suicide problem, which makes Parker’s example all the more extraordinary.
In his Medium essay, Congleton discussed the value of allowing employees to bring their “whole selves” to work, a buzzy phrase, but also a wise guiding principle that makes life more bearable for employees and is economically prudent. His response to an honest member of his team “should be business as usual,” he said, adding, “We have a lot of work to do.”