Why Can’t We Be Open About Psychological Problems in the Workplace?

I have been enjoying reading “The Keeper”, the auto biography of Tim Howard– the bearded goalkeeper who was so sensational on the US Men’s National Team during last summer’s World Cup in Brazil.

In his book, he talks openly about his two psychological disorders, which while causing him great difficulty in his early life, have also been an asset in his goalkeeping career. The psychological problems are Tourette’s Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which result in facial and verbal ticks, compulsive behavior, and extreme sensitivity to noise, touch, and light.

Most surprisingly, I learned that early in his career Mr. Howard revealed these disorders to his teammates.

Mr. Howard’s bravery set me to thinking about why in the USA we find it so difficult to discuss psychological disorders in the workplace. My experience in organizations reveals that such problems are quite common. Furthermore, they are often at the root of conflicts between people within the workplace.

This inability to reveal psychological problems is not new. Mental illness has been a stigma in society for the past 100 years. We live in a society where workers are supposed to be strong and invulnerable. So, to admit a mental disability can be seen a sign of weakness and incompetence. Yet in almost every work place we find people suffering from depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, drug and alcohol addiction, and many other problems. When it comes to these problems, we seem to live in a collective state of denial. It’s not that we don’t recognize these problems exist, it’s just that people are unwilling to admit that they have the problem.

This comes as no surprise, as we are well aware that we live in a society that stigmatizes people with mental disorders. Even though many us have some kind of problem ourselves, or we have people in our families who display one or more of these common disorders, we are reluctant to admit it.

So what can we do about it?

  1. Openness has to start with the people at the top of the organization. If you are leader who has one of these problems, or a family member who does, find the courage, as Mr. Howard has, to talk about it openly. You’ll probably be amazed that very few will be surprised by your admission.
  2. Create and communicate a policy where people can feel safe that they will not be demoted or fired if they reveal a problem. (People do have to protection of the US Disabilities Act, but still remain afraid of the consequences of revealing a psychological problem)
  3. Create a program, such as an Employee Assistance Program, where people can go to talk about their problems in a confidential environment.

Here is the paradox: While most of these problems are noticed by coworkers,the person with the problem is still reluctant to admit or discuss the problem. This creates a situation where everyone is talking about it, but no one can talk about it openly.

I wish I had a simple solution to this dilemma, but I don’t. All I can hope for is that people will find the courage to discuss this. Perhaps we can take some encouragement from the changes in the workplace about homosexuality. By no means are people totally open about their sexuality in the workplace, but the courage of a few has created a movement where more and more people are willing to come out to their coworkers.