“I’m OK, You’re OK”… But Are We, Really?… And Is It OK Not To Be OK?

By Katherine L. Poehnert, MEd Psych, PCC

Many of you may remember the book, “I’m OK — You’re OK,” from 1967 by Thomas Harris (I suspect most of us remember the title, but not the author!). The gist of his transactional analysis theory focused on four life positions:

    • I’m not OK, You’re OK
    • I’m not OK, You’re not OK
    • ‘I’m OK, You’re not OK
    • ‘I’m OK, You’re OK

While Harris comes from a rather traditional therapeutic model, using the idea of Parent, Adult and Child positions in communications, or transactions, the book title and some of his concepts apply to today’s very different (and, in many ways, super-similar) business world. I would also venture to say that the line between professional and personal lives has become much more blurred than ever before.

I suspect we have all found ourselves in each of the above positions at one time or another, but the problem, from a business perspective, is we often don’t know if the “other” is actually OK or not OK. And heaven forbid we as leaders ever let anyone know we are not OK. There has been, and continues to be, a huge stigma around any discussion of mental health in general, but particularly within a business environment. Unfortunately, there is a huge cost to this in terms of job satisfaction, retention, trust building, productivity, etc.  

If you are a human person in an organization, and feeling very anxious, depressed, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, etc, it is unlikely you will confide in anyone with whom you work. Some findings showed the following percentages of workers who feel comfortable confiding in their mental health concerns with:

Supervisors 21%
Co-workers 6%
Subordinates 35%

Only one in four employees report their battles with persistent stress and excessive anxiety, according to research from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

Normalizing mental health is a big topic of conversation among those with a platform to reach a large audience — think Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Selena Gomez, Prince Harry/Meghan Markle, and most recently, Simone Biles). While this is great in terms of the general population, the stigma at work still persists. In many ways this makes sense — jobs are at risk, biases exist, and no-one wants to be seen as “weak.”

This is so unfortunate — when someone has a physical disease or injury, and may lose time at work, or is more limited in productivity as a result, we don’t usually blink an eye, nor do we see their “handicap” as their fault. Mental health issues, however, are often seen as weaknesses; something to be overcome by “just getting over it,” or “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” These negative stereotypes often lead to untreated conditions and can end up costing companies billions per year.

Don Mordecai, MD, Kaiser Permanente’s National Leader for Mental Health and Wellness says, “About 75% of employees have struggled with an issue that affected their mental health, yet, 8 out of 10 workers with a mental health condition say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking mental health care.” He also cites a statistic from the National Alliance of Mental Heath of Massachusetts that says 62% of missed workdays can be attributed to mental health conditions.

The good news is that things are slowly beginning to change. Companies are instituting programs that, at the very least, let employees know they are concerned and caring about their mental Health. In fact, EY (formerly Ernst & Young) has a program called “R U OK?” (very aptly named given this article!) that encourages discussions and offers services around mental health. Through Barclays “This is Me” campaign, employee stories help workers feel like they aren’t alone in their mental health struggles. “Disclosure rates for mental health issues have increased — as has retention — with employees returning to Barclays after mental health-related leaves of absence.” (Ripplematch.com, Abby Gingras)

So, what can managers do to address  mental health concerns, particularly during these very uncertain times. Here are a few tips: 

  • Be vulnerable. A scary word for many, but one of the best ways to build trust on a team. Tell your team how you are feeling. This gives them permission to open up (Harvard Business Review)
  • Model healthy behavior. Don’t just pay lip service to mental health breaks, staycations, walks at lunch, etc. — actually do them! (Harvard Business Review)
  • Build a culture of connection through regular check-ins. Really listen and ask questions about your employee’s mental health. Globally, nearly 40% of employees said that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing OK — and those respondents were 38% more likely than others to say that their mental health had declined since Covid 19. (Harvard Business Review)
  • Offer flexibility. Be as generous and realistic as possible regarding working hours, particularly regarding child care needs. Address some people’s need to feel they must work all the time when working virtually. Share how you have changed your schedule while working virtually or in a hybrid model. (Harvard Business Review)
  • Provide stipends. Give stipends that can be used for wellness coaches or classes, and upgrading work from home setups, if possible. (NIHCM Foundation)
  • Host free digital trainings and seminars about different wellness topics. (NIHCM Foundation)

Hopefully, with a better understanding of mental health issues, and the importance of addressing them in the workplace, we will be able to be OK with an “I’m not OK” situation, and have happier professional settings where we may be more likely to achieve an “I’m OK, You’re OK” culture!

To learn more about how executive coaching can help you develop and strengthen your leadership skills, schedule a consultation with Kathy.