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Fostering a culture that normalizes mental health discussions

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an important topic to me personally and my leadership ethos. It is a challenge that spans the globe—day-in and day-out—for many people, whether dealing with issues themselves or supporting a loved one. Feelings of stress, anxiety, and burnout are normal, which is why every person has some risk of developing a mental health disorder, regardless of demographics, socioeconomics, education, and occupation.  

During the pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%, affecting the young and adults alike. This influx has put a demand on mental health services, leaving huge gaps for those who need care. While it is not our specialty or job to care for our colleagues, we can all care about each other by creating a safe space where honesty and trust is the norm. I am hopeful that we build a culture and support system that makes it easier for people to care for themselves and others. 

By addressing this critical topic, I want people to know that they are not alone, and we are here for you. Let us normalize talking about mental health to ensure people catch problems early and get the help that they need.   

Why is this a thing 

We all process the world in our own way, and brain chemistry impacts how we cope with fatigue, frustration, and cognitive overload. Some people may experience physical symptoms, become demotivated, or lack excitement the way they used to. Small changes in behavior or attitude can illuminate a bigger mental health issue.  

Recognizing in ourselves that something is “off” is a hard place to land, especially if what we are experiencing is unchartered territory. This challenge is further compounded by the fact that the tool we are using to assess our own mental health is the very thing with problems: our brain. That is why it’s so important for those around us to help us recognize if something is going on.  

It’s ok to not be ok 

Everyone struggles at times. It’s a very normal part of the human experience. Yet, mental health has not traditionally been a popular discussion topic. In fact, cultural stigmas and pressures of self-reliance are commonly imposed on individuals since childhood, with the idea that, “Everything will be ok.” As adults, we know this is fundamentally untrue and an unrealistic expectation. What about impressing upon children that it is normal to acknowledge at times, “I’m a mess right now”—wouldn’t that help us all, children and adults alike, better embrace ourselves when we’re simply “not ok?”  

The struggle is real 

The new normal of hybrid work changed the workforce overnight. The then unknowns of the pandemic coupled with working at a distance, exacerbated mental health struggles. And the corporate world and medical community were not prepared for the pandemic. Therefore, people feel disconnected, anxious and with a lack of boundaries between work and personal time. Many of us struggle in isolation and without a clear path in addressing it.  

Yet, we have an opportunity to foster an environment of support—for ourselves and others. Self-care is vital to taking care of others. Everyone should feel safe sharing what is going on, without any additional burden of justifying their situation or “paying the team back.”   

Always-on mentality 

Within the cybersecurity industry, some roles are incredibly taxing and take an emotional toll. They require seeing the worst the internet has to offer, accepting that success is not 100 percent of the time, and knowing attacks can happen at any time. This always-on, a-lot-at-stake mentality makes it hard to separate work and life. From counseling to job rotations, Cisco Secure has measures in place to protect the mental health of our team. And we instill the belief that the best we can do is understand what the bad actors are up to, prevent what we can, and continue moving the craft forward.  

Taking care of each other   

Even with that mindset, we still have an obligation to look after one another, and be responsible on a more personal level. We must build trust up and down an organization and ensure mental health discussions are part of the culture. At a very basic level, we can be of help to each other by taking steps that could help someone’s mental state in leaps and bounds.  

  1. Pay attention to colleagues who may be struggling. From work output, engagement, attitude, and communication styles, differences and changes could be signs that something is going on.  
  1. Engage in meaningful conversations beyond work-related tasks.  
  1. Show your own vulnerabilities with a personal anecdote about mental health challenges.  
  1. Consciously separate yourself from work, filling time with hobbies and tasks that do not require a lot of mental energy, yet help you feel like you’ve accomplished something.  

We’re in this together 

Trust is central to having an open dialogue. And talking about mental health starts with normalizing conversations about it–because it is normal. While there is neuroscience-backed research and strategies support changes that need to happen on an organizational level, my goal is to start with supporting each other and helping recognize when a colleague may be struggling. By intentionally shifting to a more mindful culture and encouraging new norms across the organization, we will help foster healthier mindsets and empower our people to create their own boundaries, ask for what they need, and get the help they need.  

Help Zone  

If anyone you know is struggling and if you are empathizing with this topic, please reach out and get help. We are here for you. You are not alone.  

Across Cisco Security Business Group (SBG), we are driving an effort to address systemic work practices, team norms, individual habits, and leadership signals that create barriers to better performance and well-being. Among the many resources and tools available for employees: 

To learn more about mental health insights, experiences, please review the following informative resources:  

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