Every company has one of those bubbly, “can-do” workers, full of vision and enthusiasm. Through most of his career, Chris Piedmont embodied this to a T — that is, until the spring of 2020.
“I became standoffish,” said the 30-year-old Brooklyn resident. Not only was it the early, traumatic days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also his partner’s mother had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Then, his work at Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign came to an abrupt end when Buttigieg dropped out of the race.
Luckily, the one thing he didn’t need to worry about was landing a new job. His former boss, Lauren Parker, who he had worked for at p.r. firms Hot Paper Lantern and Peppercomm, swooped in and offered him a position at p.r. firm FrazierHeiby. Yet as soon as they started working together, she noticed that something was off.
“Chris usually brings such energy and passion to his work,” she said. This was noticeably missing, and after a Slack meeting during which Piedmont barely engaged, she texted him: “Chris, what’s going on?”
Piedmont remembers answering something like, “I don’t know, I’m just going through a lot right now.”
Parker wanted to hear more. “I look at our employees as people. I care about them,” she said. Parker is open with her team about her own mental health. “I keep an open calendar, my appointments with my therapist are on it for all to see,” she said.
When it came to Piedmont, “I realized I needed to do something more to help.”
The two spoke that evening. Piedmont recognized that he’d been coping with almost non-stop anxiety and panic attacks. While Parker didn’t directly tell him to reach out to a mental health professional, she talked about her own experiences, to plant a seed.
Piedmont is not alone, with 44 percent saying that they are suffering from a mental illness, according to Dr. David Rock, founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global neuroscience consultancy currently advising many Fortune 500 companies.
A study published in the October 2021 issue of Harvard Business Review concluded: “Mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across all organizational levels.” A paper authored by Mayo Clinic found a major increase in the number of US adults who reported symptoms of addiction, anxiety, depression and insomnia.
“Now is the moment for managers to ask difficult personal questions, to learn how to listen, identify and help workers who are struggling,” said Rock.
To help with mental health most effectively, a personal, human touch is required.
At Knopman Marks, a financial training firm near Bryant Park, it took only one worker undergoing a mental health issue for the company to decide that it needed to set its managers up with coaches to help them navigate the problem. “It’s a big investment, but we realize we want to get in front of it,” said Leigh Yanocha, head of people strategy at the firm.
Heather Hartnett, CEO and founding partner at New York City-based venture capital firm Human Ventures, decided to bring in coaching for the startups in her portfolio. “It’s mental health care for the next generation of entrepreneurs,” she said, adding that she believes that we’re going through a “human recession” thanks to an increase in isolation.
However, not everyone who puts mental health first has access to jobs that provide anything beyond what their health-care plans offer — if they even have employee health benefits at all.
Still, there is hope. Empower Work offers a free and confidential, text-based service to provide help with work issues — simply text “HELLO” to 510-674-1414.
According to the non-profit service’s founder, Jaime-Alexis Fowler, the typical user is so stressed by their job that they don’t know what to do.
“It’s often a, ‘Should I stay, or should I go?’ scenario,” she said. “Should I quit my job? Should I try to manage my way through? Should I fight and try to change things?’ ”
An individual seeking help from Empower Work is connected to a trained peer counselor within two minutes. That individual serves as a thought partner and sounding board so that workers can find their way forward.
Next steps can range from taking a walk on your break, talking to your manager, beginning a new job search, reporting a toxic situation, or collectively organizing with other workers.
But as an employer or co-worker, how do we tell if our colleagues are in trouble?
Here are behaviors you might observe among those who are struggling:
Difficulty making decisions
Anxious people will frequently run things by their co-worker, even if they clearly know what to do.
“This constant need for confirmation assurance can get very exhausting for co-workers,” said Dr. Molly O’Shea, FAAP, a corporate consultant and physician. Unless this individual asks for help, you’re unlikely to do them, or your team, any favors by spotlighting the behavior or pretending that you know what’s actually going on, said O’Shea. If you want to help the individual, “open a conversation and if the opportunity comes up, ask ‘What can I do to help?’ ”
Digressing from punctuality to tardiness
You may have seen the meme, “Sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come,” on a T-shirt. It turns out that there could be some truth to it.
“Calling someone out for being tardy may not help. Asking them what’s going on, and seeing how you can help, might,” said Fowler, adding that actively listening to what they have to say is part of the process. However, experts caution against offering advice unless it’s asked for.
Remote workers are less productive
“While some people thrive while working from home, others need structure,” said Joe Trunzo, Ph.D., who chairs the department of psychology at Bryant University. This can manifest in social isolation, an added sense of loss of control, loneliness and more. To help, managers can offer to check in more often and ask how they can help support the individual.
Look out for colleagues who are not engaging. It could be as simple as not being visible.
“Someone who is struggling doesn’t want to turn on their camera,” said Rock.