Madalyn Parker sent an email to her team at work saying she’d be out of office for a few days to focus on her mental health.
The response she received from her company’s CEO has sparked a larger discussion about what is a rarely-talked topic in the workplace.
“I was absolutely touched. It brought tears to my eyes,” Parker told CNN. “It was surprising to be applauded for my vulnerability.”
Parker, 26, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s a software developer or “empathy engineer” – a title she chose for herself – for Olark, a Michigan-based live-chat platform that helps businesses talk to customers. It has a staff of about 40.
She told CNN she suffers from chronic anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And every now and then, she needs to take some time to focus on her well-being.
“I had experienced several nights of insomnia and was poorly rested and also having lots of suicidal thoughts, which make it difficult to accomplish much at work,” she said.
A few weeks ago, she sent an email to her team that said:
I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully, I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.
The next day, she opened her inbox to find a flood of response. But one that caught her eye was from company CEO Ben Congleton.
“I can’t believe this is not a standard practice at all organizations,” read part of his email. “You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
So, Parker posted the exchange online.
“I thought the internet should see what a good example he’s setting,” she said.
Ever since, she’s been flooded with messages telling her just how great her boss must be.
“Wow, I wish! I needed a medical mental health stay once. Upon my return, my boss told me not to let it happen again or my job would be gone,” one woman wrote.
Another said, “I had to take a mental health day recently and lie about my reasoning for not coming in, because it’s not seen as a viable excuse for missing work.”
Congleton, the boss, said that as he read through the comments on the email chain, he started to get emotional. He realized it was time to make a change.
“I think there’s a lot of people out there that don’t really understand what mental health is. I feel sorry for them,” he told CNN. “Mental health (is) just as important as physical health in these situations.”
The National Institute of Mental Health, in a study in 2015, found that an estimated 16.1 million adults in the US experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year.
And an American Psychological Association survey in 2016 found less than half of working Americans say the climate in their workplace support employee well-being.
“It’s 2017,” Congleton wrote on Medium. “When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”
His advice to employers? Create a workplace where your employees feel safe talking about what’s bothering them.
“There’s this misconception that you can leave part of yourself home when you go to work,” Congleton told CNN. “(But) some personal stuff is gonna hang in there and hold on.”