What Will It Take to Confront the Invisible Mental Health Crisis in Business?

As a finance specialist, Harvard Business School Professor Lauren Cohen works to understand the dynamics that make businesses thrive. In his recent research on family companies, he has found one common thread among successful firms: They actively support their employees’ mental health.

One of Cohen’s recent case studies spotlights Zak Pym Williams, the son of the late comedian Robin Williams, who is spreading awareness about mental illness after struggles following his dad’s suicide. Another case highlights the Staglins, a family of winemakers whose founder, Garen Staglin, started a brain health research fund after his son experienced a psychotic break.

In the following interview, Cohen, the L.E. Simmons Professor of Business Administration at HBS, discusses why it’s important for organizations to address mental health and how executives should handle pressure at the top.

“Mental health has risen to the fore.”

Kara Baskin: As a business school professor, why are you interested in mental health?

Lauren Cohen: I got interested based on the two streams of the work that I do. The first has to do with understanding what makes firms tick and what detracts from them. Within every industry, [employees] have become more important.

Also, my [research] focuses on families. Families run a large percentage of the world’s organizations. How do these families work? How do they make decisions? What can cause them to unravel?

Mental health has risen to the fore. It’s wonderful, in the sense that this is something that needs to be tackled, but also worrisome and scary in some ways, because you see just how many blind spots we have and the magnitude of the problem.

Baskin: What is the magnitude of the problem?

Cohen: There is a public stigma to mental health ailments. Here are seven of the common misperceptions around mental health that contribute to the stigma:

  1. A person’s mental health issue is just an “excuse.”
  2. “It’s going to be a burden to our business or organization if we take on this person who has a mental health issue.” There’s a cost, stability, or consistency concern.
  3. It’s associated with weakness. “Just pull [yourself up by] your bootstraps. This isn’t what your grandparents did.”
  4. Self-fault. “You’re doing something wrong. You’re not dealing with this the way you should.”
  5. The group may see it as their own failure. This is especially true in a family. “Oh, it must’ve been something we did wrong in raising our child.”
  6. It’s unsafe. “We’d love to include this person as part of organization, but it’s not safe to, because of this mental health issue.”
  7. The “not my neighbor” phenomenon, which is: “We should definitely embrace mental health concerns and issues, just not in our division.”

Now, the key to breaking the tie between these misconceptions and the stigma lies in rigorous persistence and sequential focus. Do not attempt to solve all of these in one fell swoop. Choose one misconception, and create an engaging, open, ongoing forum where it can be addressed, examined, turned-over, then re-examined. This setting maximizes the chances of employees on their own seeing how disconnected the misconception truly is.

“Understanding all of the aspects of your employees is going to make you a better organization.”

Baskin: Why should organizations think about mental health, especially people who want to be good leaders?

Cohen: Your workers are with you eight hours a day, but what happens in the other 16 is going to have a huge impact on what occurs during the eight that they’re with you.

Understanding all of the aspects of your employees is going to make you a better organization. Even if you were to say, “My job as a manager is to forget about being a friend. Forget about being a human. Forget about being a person. My job just as a manager is to make sure that I somehow maximize something here. I run the tightest ship.”

Even if that were your main goal, this would still be a front-and-center issue, because this has such an impact on employees and their lives during their eight hours.

Baskin: What can businesses learn from the recent cases you’ve written?

Cohen: The main takeaways from both of these cases are that being a leader, and a true hero in this still-forming space, can start with one conversation, one email, one question. Every marathon starts with a single step, and you’d be surprised at where that step can take you. I know personally that Zak Williams and Garen Staglin are.

Baskin: There’s a perception that senior leaders are impervious to mental health struggles. What can be done to better support people at the top?

Cohen: This is a great point. There was a paper looking at the deaths of executives and what happens. Firm profitability and other value measures go down, as you might expect.

But what’s even worse for firm value is when one of the executive’s close family members dies. Because then the executive stays on, but they are going through the mental anguish of having lost someone who’s very close to them.

It highlights in a really powerful way, just from raw data in the real world, what happens when you have an executive who has dealt with this.

Baskin: How do leaders take care of themselves?

Cohen: Each case is different. If you force a leader who’s clearly uncomfortable and doesn’t want to talk about it to open up, it may make them a worse leader: “Gosh, now my focus is on this and how I’m going to present this to employees and how they’re going to view me.”

Each leader has to decide what they’re comfortable sharing and not sharing. I don’t think that a leader has to say, “Hey: Here’s my struggle with mental health.” They can just say, “This is something that’s important to our organization, and so we are now going to consider mental health on par with physical health. They’re equivalent.” I think that’s enough.

The truth of the matter is that businesses are part of a solution, but if it started and stopped there, this would never work. It also has to be in the home. It also has to be in a public sphere. It has to be everywhere. I view business as just one piece of this.

Baskin: How do you do this without a mandatory, “We’re going to gather at lunch and talk about our mental health?”

Cohen: If you create an environment where people have the slack to do this, rather than causing it from the leader-side, I think that’s better. People who organically do want to talk about this and who feel comfortable start to talk about it, and more people will. And, honestly, some people may never want to talk about this—and that’s OK.

You just say, “This is going to be something that we as a firm recognize is an important part of people’s lives. We’re giving you all the slack. Those of you who want to take it, great. If you don’t, great. It’s totally up to you.” I think that will generate [exposure] in a much more organic way.

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US. You can also call 800-273-8255.

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Feedback or ideas to share? Email the Working Knowledge team at hbswk@hbs.edu.


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