I have claustrophobia. I don’t like being in windowless rooms, crowded elevators, or cubicles. My worst recurring nightmare is being trapped in a never ending shopping mall. It’s not a big problem, but I do notice that if I’m in a windowless conference room for an hour, I start to feel a little jumpy and uncomfortable. Some people might think of claustrophobia as being a mental defect, but to me it’s just part of who I am, like having blue eyes or a tricky knee.
Claustrophobia is classified as an anxiety disorder, one of many mental illnesses identified by the National Institute of Mental Health. An estimated 18.6% of adults in the United States suffer from some form of mental illness. What this means is that at any time, on our project teams, we have colleagues who may be dealing with the challenges of mental illness.
It seems to be true that if a co-worker is dealing with physical illness, with a colicky baby, with a family tragedy, or with relationship woes, people are supportive and understanding. But there is still a real stigma about mental illness. I have a friend who told me that he once mentioned being on a stress-management medication to his colleagues, and the reaction was so negative that he was afraid to mention it again, suffering through an extremely stressful assignment while feeling that it was unacceptable to mention his mental health.
A big part of our role as business analysts is people. Process flows and user stories are only the results of our interactions with our stakeholders and our team members. And the end goal of every project is all about people – making their jobs or their lives better through the products that we design. It seems intuitive that whether we are team members or supervisors, we need to take the responsibility to create a supportive and healthy environment for all of our team members.
It’s helpful to think of mental illness as just being part of the reality of human experience. Many people who have mental illness are very functional and may just seem a little quirky or different. While we label these things as ‘disorders,’ they can actually have both negative and positive impacts. I have a friend who is a professor of project management and who also has obsessive-compulsive disorder. As he pointed out, OCD can have its challenges, but it also helps him to be very detailed oriented in his work. Another friend describes his bipolar disorder as a ‘superpower.’
It turns out that creating an inclusive, supportive environment for our colleagues with mental disorders isn’t rocket science. In fact, these accommodations would make a nicer work environment for everybody. Here are a few suggestions I gathered from some of the many useful mental health websites:
- Allow flexible scheduling.
- Allow employees to work from home or alternative locations.
- Allow employees to bring a service animal to work to help reduce stress.
- Enable effective conflict resolution techniques and give employees permission to walk away from a conflict.
- Provide work areas with natural lighting.
- Provide work areas with privacy.
- Do not require employees to attend social functions.
But perhaps the most important thing we can do to make our teams more accommodating and inclusive? Be sensitive, compassionate, and non-judgmental. Don’t joke about mental illness, and certainly don’t freak out if you discover that one of your colleagues is suffering from mental illness. Nothing cuts off communication worse than an inappropriate overreaction. Everyone has challenges and weaknesses. The more we acknowledge our own limitations, the more understanding we are of others. When we do that, we build teams that are worthy of the name.