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Early in my career, I felt like I had to be "on" all the time. Even if my boss wasn’t counting my hours, I felt compelled to constantly be engaged with work. If I had some downtime between my tasks, I triple-checked my email. If I had time to read something, I felt like I should read something directly work related. I wouldn’t let myself take a break. It wasn’t just my desire to prove myself that was pushing me, it was anxiety, which I’ve been living with my entire adult life.
One day, I was chatting with a senior leader in the break room who told me he was meeting with a colleague that afternoon to practice speaking Italian. I must have looked surprised because he then added, "Sam, it’s important that you have non-work interests, too! Not everything has to be related to your job."
I realized that I needed to take his advice to heart to keep any sense of balance in my life. Seeing a senior leader take a break in the middle of the day to practice Italian helped calm my anxiety about always focusing on work. Along with other Red Hatters on our internal Neurodiversity Committee, I’ve been discovering ways to normalize activities in the workday--like taking personal breaks--that can make it easier for neurodiverse people to thrive.
A group of my colleagues formed the Neurodiversity Community three years ago with the mission to support Red Hatters with cognitive differences and raise awareness about neurodiversity. As part of our recognition of World Mental Health Day, we asked members of the community for behaviors they would like to be more common to help break the stigma around mental health in the workplace. This is especially important as people around the world are experiencing increased mental health challenges due to all the events of 2020.
Normalize talking openly about mental health
Sharing your personal experience with mental health can be difficult and may not feel comfortable. However, mental health challenges are part of many people’s lives and the more we share our experiences with mental health in daily conversation, the less others will feel like it’s something to hide.
At Red Hat, we’ve encouraged all associates to create a psychologically safe environment and created training on how to do so. Since the early days of the pandemic, Red Hat has introduced regular wellbeing and associate support newsletters that include advice on how to take care of yourself and your colleagues during particularly challenging times.
Part of speaking openly about mental health is being ready to hear others talk about it, too. Realize that it can be hard for people to open up about this, so if they do, be ready to listen and offer support. Be open to asking "how can I best support you?" and let your co-workers take the lead in telling you what they need.
Normalize blocking your calendar for personal breaks
Today, as the leader of a team of more than 200 people, I want everyone on the team to feel as comfortable as I do taking a break in the middle of the day for personal time. For me, that means exercising. During cross country ski season in Minnesota, I block out at least an hour in my calendar almost every day to go skiing. This helps me get energized and recharged so I can work more effectively.
In addition, Red Hat has introduced Red Hat Recharge days. For the rest of the year, Red Hat is identifying one day each quarter to be an extra day off for Red Hatters around the globe to step away from the keyboard and phone to re-energize. Working from home can create a sense that you’re "always on" and Recharge days are an opportunity for all of us to step away, take a breath, spend time with loved ones or do something you enjoy.
Normalize calendar invitations with a clear meeting description
You might not care if a calendar invitation has an agenda or not, but someone else might see an invitation without an agenda and worry that they will be unprepared for what is to come, or that there might be something challenging on the agenda (such as negative feedback).
Normalize seeking counseling or therapy
Speaking with a mental health professional can be an important part of taking care of your well-being. Unfortunately, some people still have a stigma around seeking help for mental health. I’ve been seeing a therapist for the duration of the pandemic, and I hope that others are able to seek out help as well.
Normalize not putting your video on for every call
You might not think twice about being on camera in video conference calls all day, but a co-worker might find it exhausting, or feel self-conscious to the point of distraction. Simply turning off video could make someone feel more relaxed and able to contribute more effectively.
Speaking openly about mental health may be one of the more challenging items on this list, but the behaviors we want to see normalized are, for the most part, small and easy to do. Taken together, these small things can have a big impact on the daily experiences of employees as they navigate the workday, especially when circumstances in the world are adding more stress and anxiety to people’s lives.
When thinking about how to make environments more welcoming and inclusive, it’s critical to challenge ourselves to think about what may help someone else feel more comfortable to contribute at their best, even if we don’t understand it on a personal level.
When it comes to mental health, I hope to reduce the stigma about mental illness by sharing my experiences and showing support and understanding to others who choose to do so. As Red Hat recognizes World Mental Health Day 2020, consider these behaviors, big and small, to help improve awareness and reduce stigma of mental health.