Madalyn Parker describes herself as a “web developer, music enthusiast, rabbit owner, knitter, xstitcher, mental health advocate | empathy engineer @olark.” Like most working humans—especially those who struggle with mental health issues—Parker was feeling overwhelmed at work and felt like she needed a few days off so she could give her all at the workplace. Parker sent a note to her boss saying that she was planning to take a couple of days off “to focus on her mental health.” You may be expecting a snooty response from a money-grubbing manager, but it was the company CEO, Ben Congleton, who responded, thanking Parker for reminding him that it’s totally appropriate—and often necessary—to use sick days to focus on mental health.
“You are an example to us all,” Congleton wrote to his employee, “and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
What a boss!
Parker was blown away by her employer’s response and asked if she could screenshot the email and share it on Twitter, writing that “It’s kind of a big deal that the CEO is so supportive of my mental health.” Her boss consented. Since then, tens of thousands of people have engaged with Parker’s tweet. All of the attention encouraged Congleton to reflect on his simple email response, as well. “It is incredibly hard to be honest about mental health in the typical workplace,” the Olark CEO wrote on his company’s blog. “In situations like this, it is so easy to tell your teammates you are ‘not feeling well.’ Even in the safest environment it is still uncommon to be direct with your coworkers about mental health issues. I wanted to call this out and express gratitude for Madalyn’s bravery in helping us normalize mental health as a normal health issue.” The thing is, as Congleton explained, his response to Parker, “should be business as usual. We [humanity] have a lot of work to do.”
The Olark CEO went on to address other business executives, reminding them that their job in leadership is “to empower and motivate our teams to maximize the impact of our organization for our customers, our employees, our shareholders, and the world.” “It’s 2017,” Congleton wrote, pointing out our place in a modern world. “I cannot believe that it is still controversial to speak about mental health in the workplace when 1 in 6 Americans are medicated for mental health.” “When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover,” Parker’s boss blogged. “Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”
Not a One-Off Response
This isn’t the first time that Parker has needed to use sick days to focus on her mental health. In a 2015 Medium post, the web developer detailed her history of dealing with anxiety, depression, panic attacks, insomnia, and even thoughts of suicide. She also wrote about how hard it was to reach out to her superiors to discuss how she could balance her mental health issues with her work responsibilities. Once she did reach out, Parker remembers, the company leader that she spoke to, “didn’t mention my performance at all. The conversation was quickly focused on my well-being and health, and the team’s willingness to work with me during my low points.” To top it off, Parker’s decision to speak with her superior “spurred a team-wide conversation about mental and emotional obstacles.”
Parker counts herself lucky to be a part of a company that works hard to provide a healthy work culture. At Olark, a digital chat widget company, they promote the following values: Chill out, Help each other, Assume good faith, Make it happen, Practice empathy, and Speak your mind. By nurturing these values, listening to their employees, and creating a flexible workspace for a diverse staff, Olark is showing how a modern company can and should operate. Thanks to Madalyn Parker for fighting for the recognition of mental health issues as plain ol’ health issues. And thanks to Olark CEO Ben Congleton and the rest of his management team for listening and acting on Parker’s behalf. The world could use more great examples like Olark.