Mind Share Partners founder and CEO Kelly Greenwood '97 leads the fight to destigmatize mental health conditions and create more inclusive, supportive, and productive work environments.
During the fall of her senior year in college, Kelly Greenwood ’97 received a dream job-offer in management consulting. But then something unexpected happened the summer after she graduated: The offer was deferred indefinitely. The national economy was in free fall, and the company that had made the offer was feeling the effects. They asked Kelly to be patient – circumstances would likely change within a few months. But Kelly was gripped by the fear that no comparable opportunity would arise. The anxiety symptoms that she had managed off and on for many years suddenly intensified, resulting in a major depression.
Kelly sought treatment, but something her therapist said didn’t sit right. She told Kelly – a high achiever diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder – that she might need to adjust her expectations and seek out a low-stress job.
“Maybe for some people a less stressful job is the right answer,” Kelly says. “But that advice was so antithetical to who I am.”
Two decades later, Kelly is the founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a national nonprofit focused on changing the culture around mental health in the workplace. Among other things, the organization works with employers who want to create a mentally healthy, inclusive culture. That starts, Kelly says, with destigmatizing mental health conditions and recognizing how prevalent they are, even among those in the C-suite.
Founded in 2017, Mind Share Partners has facilitated corporate trainings and provided strategic advising, built public awareness by hosting conferences and authoring publications, and offered confidential peer support groups for professionals living with mental health conditions. Their clients include Pandora, NerdWallet, and the National Human Resources Association, among others. Kelly has written about workplace mental health as a Forbes contributor and is a writer and the editor-at-large for Mental Health at Work, a blog on Arianna Huffington’s media platform Thrive Global.
For Kelly, who lives in entrepreneurial San Francisco, deciding to launch a startup and build a movement around workplace mental health was easy. The more difficult step? Deciding to talk openly about her personal struggles with mental health. That, she says, was hard.
Stigma is stubborn. Ancient humans, with little understanding of the inner workings of the brain and body, ascribed the symptoms of mental health conditions to demonic possession or punishment from God. Today, with science that explains brain function, treatments that effectively manage conditions, and statistics that show widespread prevalence, the stigma around mental health challenges should have virtually disappeared. But it hasn’t.
Mental health has been in the headlines lately, with politicians and commentators attributing mass shootings to mental illness (while failing to mention the fact that people
with mental health conditions are, statistically, far more likely to become victims of violence than perpetrators of it). Individuals suffering from depression or anxiety also
encounter less extreme – but equally stigmatizing – messages on a daily basis, including exhortations to “cheer up” or “calm down,” “shake it off ” or “get a grip,” the implication being that the person chooses to experience these conditions and could easily overcome them with a little effort and willpower.
It’s no wonder that workers with mental health conditions avoid disclosing this information to their employers and colleagues. When they take time off to manage their conditions or attend therapy sessions, they may feel compelled to invent other reasons for their absence. Or more commonly, they avoid getting the treatment they need because of the associated stigma and shame. Kelly notes, “Even if a company has excellent mental health benefits, the stigma can cause employees to shy away from using those benefits. Mind Share Partners helps to bridge that gap.”
The culture of silence and shame around mental health isn’t just bad for workers; it’s bad for business. Studies have shown that American companies lose billions of dollars each year due to absence and decreased productivity arising out of mental health conditions. And this is a worldwide problem: A recent report by the World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy the equivalent of $1 trillion U.S. dollars in lost productivity each year.
Companies that want to do something about this recognize that mental health is not a niche issue. New research published in Scientific American shows that up to 80
percent of people will manage a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime. Mind Share Partners’ 2019 Mental Health at Work Report, prepared in partnership with SAP and Qualtrics, found that 60 percent of survey respondents had experienced symptoms of a mental health condition within the past year.
“At Mind Share Partners, we talk about mental health as a spectrum,” Kelly explains. “People go back and forth on that spectrum over the course of their
lives, and very few people are 100 percent mentally healthy or 100 percent mentally unhealthy. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and where we are on the
spectrum can change over time.”
Kelly has never liked or identified with the label "mentally ill," and she doesn't use that phrase at Mind Share Partners. Illness connotes disease, infection, contagion. Ill is something you are or aren’t. A “mental health condition,” on the other hand, is less binary and less binding.
When Kelly was a child, she didn’t have language for what she was feeling. “I think I’ve probably had generalized anxiety disorder since I was a little kid,” she says. “It manifested as separation anxiety. My main symptom was having a hard time eating; I wouldn’t eat very much if I was feeling anxious.”
As a high school student, Kelly told her parents that she wanted to see a therapist. She was afraid she would be too anxious to leave home for college. Her parents saw no need for their conscientious, over-achieving daughter to see a therapist, but Kelly insisted. “Because my main symptom was having trouble eating and I did ballet, my pediatrician immediately assumed that I had an eating disorder,” Kelly says. “I really didn’t think that was the problem. Nonetheless, she sent me to an eating disorder psychologist, who then realized that it was an anxiety problem.”
Perhaps if Kelly hadn’t been such a successful student, convincing her parents that she needed therapy might have been easier.
“When we first start working with companies,” Kelly says, “we spend a lot of time debunking myths.” One of those myths is that highly successful people are more likely to be mentally healthy. In fact, mental health conditions are just as prevalent, if not more so, among leaders and high-achievers as any other segment of the population. But the stigma around mental health conditions often motivates successful people to hide their struggles.
Kelly recalls, “I was recently at a dinner with two leading neuroscientists, and the conversation was focused on how mental health affects people who are homeless and people in prison. Then in a side conversation, one of the neuroscientists shared that he had worked at Google recently, and a lot of their employees were struggling with mental health, too. I think that deserves more attention.”
Understanding the interplay of work and mental health is critical. Mental health conditions can negatively impact productivity at work, and work conditions can intensify, trigger, and even cause mental health conditions. This, Kelly says, is why employers need to think about creating healthy work cultures and taking a preventative approach.
Mind Share Partners is currently working with a large law firm that wants to be a leader in creating a mentally healthy workplace for lawyers, who experience disproportionately high rates of mental health distress and substance abuse, according to the American Bar Association. When it comes to changing
a work environment, Kelly says, some things are malleable, and some things are fixed: “For example, external deadlines are real. But companies can and should avoid manufacturing internal deadlines that require people to regularly pull all-nighters if it’s not truly necessary.”
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so when Mind Share Partners engages a new client, assessing the company’s culture, determining their objectives and needs, and developing a customized plan are important first steps. Kelly and her team might then recommend and facilitate a combination of onsite trainings for managers, senior executives, and staff; provide leader ally coaching; and advise on employee resource groups (ERGs), among other offerings.
“I think about what would have helped me, what tools I wish my managers had had when I was struggling,” Kelly explains. “But we also look at the most effective, evidence-based ways of reducing mental health stigma. Education, social contact with successful people living with mental health conditions, and peer support are all key components to that. We want to give all employees – especially managers – the tools to understand how common mental health conditions are and to help them name, normalize, and navigate this reality in the workplace.”
Kelly has found that when high achievers and leaders are open about their own struggles with mental health, it can have a destigmatizing effect within individual companies and in society at large. This July, Fast Company reported on the importance of elite athletes opening up about mental health. “The more athletes talk, the more fans might feel inspired to seek help on their own,” writes John Affleck. Kelly believes that more business leaders need to take a similar approach.
She also points out that the athletes in Affleck’s article illustrate how achievement and mental health conditions can go hand in hand: “Perfectionism serves those athletes well until their high expectations for themselves aren’t met, which at some point is inevitable. And that sets them up for a fall.”
Kelly sees her own anxiety as an inextricable part of her personality – and her success. She observes, “My anxiety is often helpful. It fuels my motivation, my ambition. Then occasionally it becomes so overwhelming that it’s obviously not helpful. But dealing with those struggles has given me much more empathy and resilience, which are critical assets for managers and leaders.”
Kelly was on maternity leave from her position as chief growth and strategy officer for the national nonprofit Techbridge Girls when she decided that she was ready to open up about her anxiety and start Mind Share Partners. She hadn't talked about her mental health previously, in large part because she feared professional repercussions. Kelly says, “I ultimately took a leap of faith because, in addition to my personal experience and the business impacts, I see this as a civil rights issue.”
Mental health is increasingly recognized as a limiting factor to the goals of diversity and inclusion. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities often suffer from poor mental health outcomes due to multiple factors, including inaccessibility of high-quality mental health care services, cultural stigma surrounding mental health care, discrimination, and overall lack of awareness about mental health.” Thus, a workplace that genuinely values diversity and inclusion must strive to create a culture that destigmatizes mental health conditions and supports employees facing these challenges. On the flipside, mental health is becoming a diversity and inclusion category in and of itself. Within the last couple of years, pioneering companies have started ERGs specific to mental health, as
they have done for women, the LGBTQ community, and other underrepresented groups in the workplace.
Another group increasingly reporting mental health conditions and demanding better support at work? Young people. Kelly says, “Millennials and Gen Z are reporting more mental health challenges, leaving jobs more often because of mental health reasons, and feeling like their companies aren’t mentally healthy. Today’s young people have grown up talking about mental health in school; then they enter the workforce and all of a sudden it becomes taboo.”
Companies that want to attract and retain young talent will need to rise to the challenge. The bottom line, Kelly says, is that mental health conditions are extremely common, and the vast majority are treatable.
Kelly was ultimately heartened by the positive response she received when she “came out” about her mental health journey: “Almost every time I’ve shared this with someone, I get a personal story in return,” she says. “It’s something that people just need a little bit of permission to talk about. And for me, being a part of that process is incredibly rewarding.”