Please note: This piece describes experiences with anxiety, stress, and depression.
When I was first promoted to executive vice president, my mental health wasn’t great.
It didn’t quite track. I’ve felt nervous and anxious many times throughout my professional life, but I was noticing a trend –– or lack thereof: as my title was improving, my mental wellbeing wasn't improving along with it.
As you move up in your career, you often feel compelled to put on more and more of a façade –– I did.
I felt I should be the calm one, the steady one, the safe pair of hands. The one who's always ready to make hard decisions –– who always has the answers.
According to anyone’s standards, I’ve built a successful career in branding, spending time both in-house and at agencies. I’ve been in charge of events with six-figure budgets. I’ve presented to boards of directors. I’ve had to make the hard decisions for years.
Through it all, I had always tried to keep up the façade. I had never been transparent at work about my challenges with stress, anxiety, and depression.
I was afraid.
What would people think of me if they knew I struggled with my mental health? Would they use it against me in some way? Would they view me as less of a leader?
Over time, the more I tried to save face, the worse I felt. And the worse I felt, the more it impacted my performance.
As the pandemic set in, I found myself reevaluating how closed off I had been when it came to my mental health journey. I realized I was done fearing what people would think if they knew my real story.
If they knew that I struggle with anxiety. That stress sometimes causes me to have physical symptoms like eczema flare-ups. Or that I have depressive episodes.
One day, I needed to step away from work so I tested the waters. I told one of my direct reports I was taking a mental health day.
In the past, I would've said I had a cold. But this time, I decided to be honest.
“I can’t believe someone I work for is telling me they’re taking a mental health day,” my team member said, slightly teary-eyed. “I’ve never heard a manager say that.”
I thought by keeping a lid on my mental health at work that I was protecting my colleagues –– that I was shielding my team from the stress and pressure that comes with being a leader. I thought it was a good thing.
But in that moment I came to understand the immense power in being open and vulnerable –– in being human.
As I leaned into that openness, not only did I find plenty of support among my coworkers, I also started to build a stronger leadership toolkit for my team –– and myself.
Previously, in my effort to hide my challenges with mental health, my team had sometimes seen me as stressed and withdrawn. They were confused and sometimes stressed out themselves as a result of my demeanor.
Now, I’m all about transparency. I will continue to normalize talking about mental health at work –– to pursue openness and see it as a sign of strength rather than something to fear.
Being empathetic and emotionally in tune with those around us are skills we can learn. They take practice. Part of that practice is prioritizing your own self-care so you have the energy to engage when others need support.
Today, I welcome tears in professional settings. I say no to meetings or after-work activities if I need some time to myself. I nurture my many hobbies. I take a mental health day when I need one.
I’m committed to dropping the unruffled, senior-leader façade. Because the fact of the matter is I’m not always composed and I don’t have all the answers. I’m figuring things out one day at a time, too.
As ambitious professionals, everything can feel high-stakes. But ambition, leadership, and competence can look different in different people.
The more we acknowledge our collective humanity –– and strive to be open about our individual challenges –– the more we can understand one another.
If we want a diverse set of problem-solvers to lead our businesses — and as an executive at a global education company, I believe we do — then we need to start reshaping our idea of what those attributes look like.
Because success doesn’t always need to look like sacrifice. Driving yourself into the ground and hiding your emotions aren’t wins. The real win is caring for ourselves and our communities while we do great work — and coming out whole on the other side.
Read more about this series, We're All Human: Mental Health Stories From Real Professionals.