Taking Mental Health Seriously Is How the Best Business Leaders Protect Their Teams

One in five people -- including your employees -- is struggling with a mental illness.

learn more about Jason Saltzman

By Jason Saltzman

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I live with general anxiety disorder.

Two years ago, I wrote publicly about my struggle with this disorder for the first time. Some of the reactions were tough to swallow. People reached out to me to say, "I thought you had it together." I was offended because I do have it together, probably better than those people who don't have to fight against this problem every day. All of the success I've earned in my life -- starting Alley, speaking on national stages and television shows, building community and entrepreneurship initiatives -- happened despite my anxiety disorder.

I'm not the only one. After the article was published, I also received thousands of emails from seasoned entrepreneurs who had built several companies telling me that what I shared resonated with them. They knew the struggle too. Those entrepreneurs and I are living proof that success and mental illness are not mutually exclusive. You have to work a little harder than most to get to your goals, but it's possible.

Related: Mental Illness May Plague Enterpreneurs More Than Other People. Here's Why (and How to Get Help).

Accomplishing those goals isn't the end of the battle, though. This past June, just three days apart, designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain both lost their lives to suicide. Many people were shocked. These were two successful individuals living seemingly great lives, and yet depression pushed them to their limits.

Here's the thing about mental illness: it doesn't discriminate. No matter how glamorous someone's life appears from the outside, there's no way to know what they're dealing with behind closed doors. As CEOs, that's a reality we can't ignore. Not just for ourselves, but for our staff. One in five Americans are living with mental illness -- that's 20 percent. There's no doubt that some of your employees are a part of that statistic. This is real, and we need to talk about it.

I believe that mental health awareness and education should be mandatory in any workplace. Good business leaders are the ones who hire the best talent and give them the support they need to be great, and part of that support has to include their mental health. As leaders, we need to take the time to be empathetic to what our employees are going through, on and off the job, and be prepared to help them be their greatest in spite of those challenges. Over the years, I've worked hard to build that kind of support system for my team at Alley. Here are four things you can do to get that ball rolling in your company.

1. Make transparency the norm.

You cannot develop awareness around mental health in the workplace and implement effective policies and procedures to address it if your staff is afraid to raise the conversation. So, build your company to be transparent. Create a culture that allows the subject of mental health to be shared and not buried. Hold focus sessions, and open the dialogue with your team. You have to foster an environment that encourages your employees to speak freely if they are struggling and to trust that they won't be punished for it.

Related: Maintaining A Healthy Mind and Body Is Key to Finding Balance As An Entrepreneur

2. Really have your employees' backs.

With mental health issues so common, it's not a matter of if your employees will ever need support, it's a matter of when. Your team needs to know that when they open up about their mental health, you will have their backs. So, once the conversation has been started, listen, understand what they're going through, learn what they need, and reverse engineer how you can help them when the time comes. If people need time off, create an open policy on requesting leave. If they need doctors or therapy, ensure that your health plan is designed to help them access those resources. If they're looking for work-life balance, hold events and get-togethers that are fun and supportive. Put the processes and policies in place to support your employees when they need it most.

3. Don't let your office be a trigger.

Employees spend anywhere from a quarter to a third of their lives at work. That time shouldn't have to feel like torture. Some jobs are stressful, and that can't be avoided, but that does not mean that the work environment has to be challenging too. Create the kind of workplace where your employees will actually like coming into the office. Of course, cool perks like events and get-togethers and free stuff are great, but it's also as simple as being nice. It matters so much when you're kind to people, so make that a part of your company culture on every level.

Related: Do Wellness Programs Make Employees More Productive? The Obvious Answer Is Yes.

4. Don't feel like you have to do it all yourself.

Because I suffer from mental illness, I am naturally more empathetic to the mental health needs of my staff. But that doesn't mean I'm equipped to address them all. At Alley, we've established partnerships with other brands and companies for resources like meditation facilities and yoga instruction that our staff can take advantage of. If you're looking for ways to support your staff in their mental wellness, reach out to other businesses in your network for tools, spaces and resources your staff could benefit from.

In business, a good staff can be your best asset. Your company runs because they commit their time and energy to it. So, give them back something more than a paycheck. Get to know your employees beyond their job descriptions, prioritize their mental well-being, and create a system of support they can count on when they need it.

Jason Saltzman

Startup Mentor, Entrepreneur, CEO of Alley

Jason Saltzman is a seasoned entrepreneur with a background in sales and marketing. Through his role as CEO of Alley and as a TechStars mentor, he advises hundreds of startups, offering real-life practical application and creative marketing advice.  

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