When leaders of public companies and other high-profile institutions start speaking openly about their experiences with depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges, the veil of shame that conceals many of these conversations at work starts to lift.
It can begin with an executive simply being open with their teams about their personal challenges. Or it can involve more formal storytelling. Not only does storytelling heal, it opens the door for true change.
Through my podcast, I met Newton Cheng who serves as Director of Health and Performance at Google (he is also a world champion powerlifter). Cheng and I had a frank and inspiring conversation, and I asked him who inspired him to be public about taking mental health leave in 2021. Cheng explained he found a role model in his former Google colleague Daryll Henrich.
“He was a VP and very respected leader in our overall IT organization,” Cheng explained on the podcast. “And I first heard his story in a management training aimed at managers. Not only had [Henrich] shared his story with the entire company, but Google’s L&D team took his story and embedded it into a key manager training course. The story sat in my memory for 10 years before I experienced struggles that were similar, and it helped me feel less alone when I finally needed it.”
I tracked down Henrich, curious about the origin of a story that had clearly influenced many. Henrich, a former VP of engineering at Google, doesn’t think his journey to mental wellness at work needed to be as hard as he made it. But at the time, he had few role models.
When Henrich first began experiencing anxiety and depression in 2006, he felt alone. “There was no one in the industry I could look to and say, ‘Oh, there’s an example of someone who was able to get through or integrate that experience and thrive anyway.’”
His recovery process was slow. “I didn’t take any medication. And I believe now in retrospect, it led me to a much longer slog through recovery. But I was stubborn. I asked my therapist at one point, When am I, quote, unquote, ‘better?’ This doesn’t feel like, Oh, I got over a cold.
“It got to the point where it was so long and drawn out that I lost my baseline, and I didn’t remember what normal even felt like. The therapist said, ‘It begins to get better as it becomes something that happened to you rather than something that is happening to you. But it is always going to be with you.’ And he said that as I begin to integrate the experience into my ongoing life, that’s when I get better.”
It took Henrich years to feel comfortable enough to open up about his anxiety and depression. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, he never expected to end up on the management track at Google. But he was promoted quickly, and by his late twenties, was managing a staff of 45. Around that time, he also started noticing disturbing physical symptoms and mood shifts that preoccupied him.
These were signs of anxiety, but Henrich ignored them until “it got so bad that obsessive thoughts about my own well being led to a severe hypochondria, which led to panic disorder and a night in the hospital.” After this, he finally started therapy and was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. Henrich calls 2006-2008 the worst period of his life, where he constantly worried everything he’d built at Google was at risk.
“I worried I’d gone from up-and-coming rockstar to what I viewed as weak,” Henrich says. His mental health struggle was a source of terror and shame. “Everyone I looked up to seemed invincible. I put other Google executives on pedestals. I felt like I did not have anybody to talk to.
“The track that I was on that was not sustainable and being interrupted by this experience was a taste of humble pie. But it forced me to address the life habits and work habits that were completely unsustainable and really harming me.
In retrospect, Henrich is grateful for the experience. And as he began to share his story, he realized that he’s become a role model he wished he had.
It was only when one of his direct reports came to him in 2009 to ask for a mental health leave that Henrich was moved to speak publicly about his anxiety and depression. He started sharing his story throughout Google, and included his mental health journey in management training courses he was increasingly asked to give.
“In addition to my job, which was running a big chunk of internal systems at Google, I made that my side hustle, internally speaking out about this or whether it was just talking to people who got sent my way as that network grew. And ultimately, teaching leadership classes. The first or second slide of every leadership class I ever taught was about taking care of yourself. It’s the ‘put on your mask before helping someone else kind of thing’. And so literally, any public speaking that I ever did internally to Google included this.”
Henrich’s story even went viral on the Google Intranet. “People would tell me it was brave, and it felt like it should have gone all wrong for my career. Sharing my story didn’t destroy my career at all, and actually led to a lot of upside for my career.”
Henrich is what Kelly Greenwood, CEO of the workforce mental health non profit Mind Share Partners, calls a leader ally. A leader ally’s story is an authentic, vulnerable, and supportive message that includes a personal experience with mental health, which can range from high stress to burnout to grief to a diagnosable condition. It can be past or present, a one-time episode, or an ongoing challenge, and it may or may not have affected work.
As we can see with Henrich, leader allies help normalize mental health challenges at work, and reduce the stigma. They signal that experiencing mental health challenges is ok, and most important, they model mentally healthy behaviors.
Henrich credits his recovery from mental illness with his transformation as a leader who eventually built a team of thousands. He developed empathy as a boss. “Good human values as a leader creates a safe and compassionate place where people want to work,” he says.