employee support

Health Equity Belongs At Work

You’re not the only one stressed. Most of your colleagues are too.


Ten years ago, I found myself in the middle of a nervous breakdown crisis looming at work. Two colleagues and a client, to be precise. While I had experienced several variations of burnout and breakdown with colleagues as well as myself over the years, this crisis was the perfect storm.

Coming off the heels of the 2008 financial crisis, many of us were struggling with heightened stress across the board. My employer, a boutique digital design agency in San Francisco, had barely scraped by without having to lay off a single employee. Frankly, it was a pretty amazing feat; since agencies are services-based, when budgets get cut and offices go dark, so does our business. We saw several clients go silent and others simply got laid off. Unlike the dotcom bubble bust that began in the late 90's, this economic crisis affected everyone, everywhere.

We were all feeling weary yet hopeful the market would slowly rebound. Yes, we lost clients, but we had, remarkably, gained new ones. I credit to this day the agency’s founder who had a reputation for hiring not only good talent, but people who weren’t assholes. We were known to be the “nice people” agency in town. We certainly weren’t perfect and sure, there was ego, but we collectively cared more about respect, collaboration and putting the user/customer first.

With this inherently good workplace culture, how could this nervous breakdown crisis happen?

My two colleagues –a principal who recently returned to work after having her second child and a senior design lead who struggled with anxiety — were both assigned to a client who was going through her own breakdown due to a high-pressure job at a financial services firm. I remember coming to work one morning and seeing the principal at her desk, preparing for a design review. As I said hello, she looked up and in a fatigued way, said hi back. The dark circles under her eyes. She was exhausted. We were friends (we had our babies within two weeks of one another), and she admitted during her leave that she was reticent about returning to work so soon. It couldn’t be put off. People needed her as a leader, but the pressure to come back as someone they could rely on to buffer them against annoying clients and just…be a mom. She knew it.

For the design lead, he became more irritable and erratic over the weeks. A highly intuitive and kind creative, I deeply respected him, yet I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt concerned about his mental health.

Then there was the client. I arrived to our office another morning where several people were speaking in hushed tones. They shared news of the client paying a surprise visit with a drawer full of socks. She wanted to use the drawer as some metaphor for problem-solving a business challenge. It freaked some of my peers out; everyone felt worried and unsure what to do. The energy at our office just felt hexed! We were all deeply unprepared for how to support any of these people.

Within a couple of weeks, our two colleagues left. The client took a leave of absence. We were shaken and confused, and there wasn’t any way to talk about it openly. We wondered: who would be next? Why didn’t they say something? What could we have done better to help them?

Now let me guess: you’ve probably experienced similar situations at work before. If you haven’t, you are very VERY fortunate. But for those who have, workplace stress in the US is more common than ever. That whole “I feel like shit and this job is making me hate myself.” It’s real, and it’s killing us.

Stanford professor and business management author Jeffrey Pfeffer writes in his new book, Dying For A Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance–and What We Can Do About It, “Job stress costs US employers more than $300 billion annually and may cause 120,000 excess deaths each year.” From hourly wage workers to overpaid C-suites, no one is immune. While we focused on humanizing our technologies so we could all be better connected, we failed at connecting the dots between our personal health, our work environment and our relationships to one another. Adjusting our job demands to two working parents, returning to work after battling cancer, healing from a nervous breakdown…these are common events that require not just policy planning, but acute empathy and education around what health equity means in the workplace.

Volumes of research and data –science!– demonstrate empathy and mindfulness play integral roles in positive business transformation. We are humans, after all. We need love, we value feeling connected and serving bigger purposes other than ourselves. However, the reality is that orgs, –whether business, academia, non-profits, government– are WAYYYYY behind on putting people first. Boards are no exception either. Even Pfeffer says in his introduction in Dying For A Paycheck, “Notwithstanding the publication of numerous books, including some of my own, on this topic, workplaces were, if anything, getting worse with less employee engagement and satisfaction and diminished trust in institutional leadership.” It’s no longer acceptable to ask employees to leave their personal life at home because that was always bullshit and always unrealistic. We now know that internalizing stress kills us. It spreads and hurts others. This is science, not some woo-woo, New Age belief.

As a working professional who has spent the past 25 years crafting my career based on working with smart, talented, caring people, I speak from experience when I say that the “caring” part is always the hardest trait to find in work culture. I expected Millennials, for example, to be much more enlightened and immediately empathetic than my generation (GenX), but duh, sweeping generalizations are never accurate and this is a complex lot. Empathy requires constant reflection from how we take care of ourselves to how we care for others, regardless of our age and our professional relationships with one another. You can’t learn empathy in a couple workshops.

With the litany of social, economic, environmental and political problems unfolding left and right, it is critical for us humans –not just Americans– to figure out better ways to work together so that we’re not bullying each other or ignoring cries for help. I started Health Equity Partners to help business leaders figure out their game plan to reduce workplace stress and working with a growing, national network of practitioners, I’m confident we can create better health equity at work, reduce healthcare costs, and deepen the legacies of companies that get it. But like all big changes in society, it requires a sea-change of both personal and capital commitment.

Working hard is part of what drives success; how hard we work depends on where we’re at in our lives. We must accept that to keep one another productive, motivated and healthy, our working systems must become more flexible to support the ups and downs in our lives.

As for my colleagues and the client? I’m happy to share that both colleagues recovered and are doing well. The client recovered, left her toxic job, and now has a great role with a leading healthcare organization. They went through some very dark times, but they had enough support and love to get through. We need to be ready for those who may not be so lucky.