Former CEO Andy Dunn, in the long, wide, smooth wake of a $310 million payday from selling his company to Walmart, is out with a book called Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind, through which, as he tells The Wall Street Journal, he wants to set about “normalizing disclosure of mental illness, particularly in the workplace.”
That notion unhappily calls to mind a passage from H.L. Mencken’s 1920 essay about America’s “Cult of Hope”:
“Unluckily, it is difficult for a certain type of mind to grasp the concept of insolubility,” Mencken wrote, in his characteristically truculent style. “Thousands of poor dolts keep on trying to square the circle; other thousands keep pegging away at perpetual motion. … These are the optimists and chronic hopers of the world … It is the settled habit of such credulous folk to give ear to whatever is comforting; it is their settled faith that whatever is desirable will come to pass.”
As the son of the late Carol Murray, a brilliant and loving woman who had mental illness and died of it, few developments would be more desirable to me than “normalizing the disclosure of mental illness” in the workplace.
Alas, few circles seem less square-able to me than that one. Why? Organizations value, in leaders and workers alike, sanity above all things: reliability, predictability, dependability, repeatability and stability. Can we imagine an organization that would not prize such traits in most of their people? More to the point, can we imagine a company that could embrace their opposite?
Meanwhile, American workplaces are teeming with ambitious people, who, no matter how “normalized” mental illness is, will always find a way to step on the discloser’s back, with a remark, a forefinger silently circling the ear or just a raised eyebrow that says: Boss, you know I love Andy—love him!—but are we sure we can depend on him to make the right call under pressure? Or, Sandy is the best, especially when she’s “on”; but do we really want her managing people?
I sincerely offer these thoughts not as a final word, but as a challenging first salvo, for readers to describe to me how it could possibly work to have a large bank or a manufacturer or an airline or a school full of people up and down the hierarchy, openly disclosing their bipolar disorder, drug and alcohol addiction, borderline personality disorder, severe anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, PTSD and psychosis. And I offer the thoughts in hopes that I might learn about some ways mental illness is already being accommodated in workplaces.
But my question is: Destigmatizing mental illness generally is difficult enough. Normalizing it in the workplace: As humane and sane as that sounds, is it reasonable to expect?
And if we conclude that it’s not, maybe we can start thinking about what else might be done to make workplaces easier to live in for people for whom living isn’t easy.