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Beyond the stigma: embracing mental health

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By: Brendan Colantuono, Director of Merchandising & Supplier Collaboration
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May is Mental Health Awareness Month and (much to my surprise) this will be the 75th anniversary of it being observed in our country. Awareness of the importance of mental health is something I’ve heard few argue against, but I think we may be nearing the tipping point of needing to reframe the narrative away from “Awareness” and towards “Accessibility”. Over the last 10 to 15 years, we have seen a slew of celebrities, athletes and other high-profile people share their personal stories relating to mental health. This trend has significantly influenced the acceptability of mental health as a topic and reduced the stigma often associated with it. What hasn’t made nearly as much progress over that time is the ease or affordability of anyone struggling with their mental health to actually do something about it. We as a country continue to linger on the “What/So What” without addressing the “Now What”. This is a topic that has been top of mind and close to my heart most of my adult life. I’ve wrestled with anxiety myself and have seen family/close friends go through their own significant mental health struggles as well. I turned that interest and proximity into action in the Spring of 2023 when I applied to Xavier University to begin taking night classes for a master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, finishing up my first year just last month. While I’ve already learned so much (yet have so much more to go), I think the most interesting thing I’ve walked away with so far is the tremendous overlap between the attributes that make a good therapist and the ones that make a good leader in the business world. Insert dad joke here about, “all my employees do is complain to me, it feels like I am a therapist.” But there is far more truth there than I initially thought. Good therapists need to know/be many things, but if I had to pick one must-have quality it would be: Empathy. As I reflect on the best (and worst) people I’ve worked for in my life, empathy (or a severe lack thereof) is the throughline. Striking this balance, though, is easier said than done as a leader within a growth-mindset business.

What does an Empathetic Leader look like?

Drawing upon the aforementioned link to counseling, I’d highlight five key attributes that hold true across both fields in my opinion:

  1. Genuinely Empathetic: taking a sincere interest in meeting your team member wherever they are that day and finding ways to help them achieve both personal and professional objectives.

  2. Authentically Open: bringing your genuine self to work/your team; where appropriate, being comfortable sharing portions of your non-work self to help establish a foundational personal connection. It is OK to be “deliberately vulnerable” at times—this may feel like a weakness but can be a tremendous strength for a leader.

  3. Consistently Present: more challenging (and important) than ever before within a hybrid work environment. To-do lists, Teams chats, emails, and texts can easily distract you from the connection opportunity in front of you, and meaningful connection with your team members will only happen when they see/feel you fully present with them – even if that presence is via Teams video.

  4. Willingness to Model: be the change you want to see in your team, whether that is a change in attitude, work product quality, or self-disclosure to drive connectivity, your team innately looks to you as a guide.

  5. Active Self-Monitoring/Care: this is heavily stressed in the “helping profession” world of counseling, but is remarkably true in our world, too: we cannot take care of/lead others if we are not properly caring for ourselves. Ensuring the leaders of others are properly supported and in a good place can have a massive downstream impact on the rest of the team.

What if I am not a leader or manager?

For those that do not lead teams, that does not mean the above attributes are not applicable to you. Empathetic Leadership is important at every level of an organization. Though the application and scale may differ, the impact on yourself and the general team vibe holds true. There are a few items I would call out for individual contributors, though, on a more micro-level when it comes to the topic of mental health. Disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist (yet), so I am speaking strictly from my initial studies and personal experience. With that out of the way:

  1. Set Boundaries: boundaries are talked about endlessly and often for good reason. But the term can also tiptoe into the dreaded “therapy speak” world that sounds important but can be misused in situations. The reality is that establishing personal and professional boundaries within your life based on your own priorities is integral to achieving the balance that most of us seek.

  2. But Also Set Realistic Expectations: in addition to boundaries, it equally important to realize that this balance may come at the expense of other goals, and it is important to set realistic expectations for yourself based on your holistic set of priorities. Can you start a new career, exceed expectations, stack up promotions and have a fully balanced work/personal life? It isn’t impossible, but it’s certainly a tall order. Most of us have to choose and that is perfectly fine, there are different seasons in life. As Scott Galloway (author and NYU School of Business Professor) said in a recent interview on this subject: “you can have it all, just not all at once.”

  3. Seek Help/Support: no matter who you are, it is OK to ask for help. Full stop. I am a firm believer that every single person would benefit from (at least occasional) counseling and I take every chance I can get to mention that I go every 4-6 weeks, as there is even further to go in destigmatizing it for men. If I can impart one piece of seemingly over-simplified advice if you are looking for a counselor: find somebody you like and feel like you could trust. Most positive outcomes in therapy develop out of simply liking and feeling comfortable with the person. At a bare minimum, ensure you’re leaning on your support network of friends/family.

  4. Don’t Underestimate the Basics: Eat Healthy. Exercise. Get Proper Sleep. Touch Grass. Spend Time with Friends/Family. I hated getting this advice when I was in a tough place, but the impact of these relatively “basic” things is truly outsized. If you’re anything like me, when you’re struggling, the idea of doing any of those things can feel like moving a mountain. Every instinct I have when I am in a tough place mentally is to do the exact opposite: eat horrible, be sedentary, embrace my inner hermit and isolate. It doesn’t make it much easier to actually do, but I know that in that situation doing the opposite of my instincts is the right way to begin feeling at least a little bit better.

  5. Know Your Resources: like many other things, the first step of a journey towards better mental health is often the hardest. A big part of the accessibility problem in our country is that the network that is supposed to be there to support us is convoluted, under-represented and expensive. Chances are your company has at least some level of built-in support for their employees and some are even exploring bringing therapists directly on-site for employee support. Don’t be afraid to venture out and take that first step (including talking to your Primary Care Practitioner) to find the right helping person for you and your goals.

Individual mental health challenges and the broader accessibility issues we have in our country often feel so large that it can seem overwhelming to even begin solutioning against them. The truth is that each of us have the power within us to begin making changes for the better, even if only gradually for ourselves and those around us. Most importantly, though, if you are reading this and are a people manager, it is imperative to understand the immense impact your actions have on your employees’ mental health. In a 2023 survey by UKG Workforce Institute, employees stated that their manager has just as much of an impact on their mental health as their spouse/partner. That is a tremendous amount of power that few people leaders knowingly signed up for when they took that first managerial position. Unlike choosing a spouse/partner, many individuals don’t get the opportunity to choose their manager. Those that have the privilege of choosing could still have their manager change in an instant – due to the realities of a dynamic business environment. Thus, a new manager could suddenly “appear” without having provided any input. That lack of agency over such a critical factor of mental health is startling and isn’t something many people would accept outside of the office. Managers having such a high level of mental health impact does not have to be negative, though. Through practicing empathetic leadership behaviors people leaders can uniquely support their employees’ mental health, which will inherently ripple into their personal life and work productivity in a positive way.

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Brendan Colantuono, Director of Merchandising & Supplier Collaboration
As Director of Merchandising & Supplier Collaboration, Brendan Colantuono is responsible for driving connectivity between Kroger Merchandising, 84.51° Commercial Teams and the broader supplier community. He manages a ...

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