Destigmatizing Mental Health

By responding to a desire to Get Shit Done (GSD) in the wellness space, a BLK SHP “Posse” of members was formed and created what we call a “Trojan Horse” — a manageable entry-point into a major problem space — that is already changing the way corporate America and other institutions think and talk about mental health. 

It started with a corporate members’ dinner on an inviting New York City fall night.  Our posse of 12 mulled insights from bestselling wellness and workplace author Tom Rath and Yale researchers Emma Seppälä and Marissa King, who are all part of BLK SHP’s thought leadership guild of 60 top researchers & authors. 

About 75 minutes in, armed with new insight on workplace wellness and storytelling patterns to consider from artists, the group was asked what issue they wanted to tackle — together. 

After a moment, Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP, the $150 billion software giant, leaned back in his chair and threw out a provocation: “I have an idea: mental health!”

The room was silent for a few seconds.

It was a bold call: seeking to destigmatize mental health in the workplace was difficult terrain that many had tried unsuccessfully in the past. (Some in our guild would even warn us that it was a fool’s errand.) But our hunch was that this time might be different. First, it was a problem that touched everyone at dinner. Every family faces challenges around mental health. And, through BLK SHP’s Outposts around the world, we had all noticed shifts in popular culture. Our co-conspirators like Chance the Rapper and Lady Gaga and their foundations were talking more publicly about challenges from mental health, and in very personal ways.

Destigmatizing mental health issues — ranging from stress to anxiety, depression and other clinically-diagnosed disorders— already was building towards a cultural trend. When we see culture shifts like this, it’s only a matter of time before organizations begin to respond.

At BLK SHP, we strive to be at the tip of the spear on change, and to catalyze it — this seemed like an opportunity.

So, based on the enthusiasm at dinner around Bill’s challenge, we formed a “Posse” that included senior BLK SHP leaders at SAP, IBM, Walmart, Juniper, WPP, and BlackRock, leading researchers from Yale, Stanford, and UPenn, and entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs already leading with new solutions for mental health and the workplace. .

When we form a posse, we send out a call to our corporate members and our Outpost “shepherds” (as we affectionately call the leaders in cities with BLK SHP Outposts) around the world — from Singapore to London, Mexico City to New York. Those local shepherds then alert BLK SHP members in that city about an opportunity to co-conspire; and those members then alert us to the best innovators in those regions.

Our work kicked in. Within six months we honed our views on the issue — identifying and assessing problem areas that are opening up new trajectories for change, and how to position our corporate members for maximum impact — and formed our “Trojan Horse” entry point for change.  A posse is merely a vessel to harness learning and co-conspirators. After we built an ecosystem of roughly 60 co-conspirators, and catalyzed experiments that we could advance across multiple companies, we could clearly see a few things:

  • Destigmatizing mental health in the workplace could reasonably be called the next frontier in the field of Diversity & Inclusion 

  • Popular culture shifts, especially driven by artists and musicians being more open about mental health challenges had helped open the door for changes in corporate culture

  • Remixing celebrity advocacy with senior leadership role modeling created significant enthusiasm for changes and new programs

In six months, what was at first a difficult topic for us to speak about at a dinner had led to a Trojan Horse that suggested stress and anxiety solutions were the key issues in mental health that could open entirely new pathways for change.

We further found that partnering with key culture leaders like Lady Gaga, and big companies like SAP, provided a crucial spark to an emerging movement. Seeing the momentum, BLK SHP execs at other companies were more interested in launching their own mental health initiatives. We sensed a new movement was building, much like we experienced around being at the front-end of the Diversity & Inclusion movement within companies several years prior.

Nine months later, five major companies of our members (WPP, BlackRock, IBM, SAP, and PwC) readied for significant initiatives around mental health, and many other companies took note.

Where most organizations seek to leverage vertical, hierarchical power, at BLK SHP, we look to harness horizontal power by forming “co-conspiracies” in order to learn and innovate quickly, and catalyze change. Our ecosystem extends across three realms — leading individual business thought-leaders, senior brass who are “black sheep” innovators inside their own big companies, and the misfit artists, culture leaders, entrepreneurs, and social entrepreneurs who are early adopters of change.

BLK SHP is a bit like a global mafia of misfits — artists intimate with movements in culture, researchers whose work defines true ‘thought leadership’, and early adopters in a broad array of problem spaces. When those three groups can co-conspire in a problem space, the learning and pace of change accelerates dramatically, and we collectively GSD (“get shit done”).

*Characters in order from top left to right: Maya Enista Smith - Exec. Dir., Born This Way Foundation, Deep Penesetti, MD - Founder & CEO, Session, Justin Cunningham - Co-Founder, SocialWorks, Vivek Bapat - SVP, SAP, Jaqui Canney - Global Chief People Officer, WPP, Debb Bubb - Chief Leadership & Learning Office, IBM, Sanoop Luke - Shepherd, BLK SHP, London, Johnathan McBride - Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, BlackRock, Marissa King - Professor of Organizational Behavior, Yale School of Management, Bill McDermont - CEO, SAP, Lady Gaga - Co-Founder, Born This Way Foundation, Kelly Greenwood - Founder & CEO, Mind Share Partners, Leanne Williams - Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Stanford Univ.