When leaders of public companies and other high-profile institutions begin to speak openly about their experiences with depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges, the veil of shame that hides in most work conversations begin to lift.
It can start with an executive being open with their teams about their personal challenges. Or it may involve more formal storytelling. Not just the storytelling Ayoit opens the door for real change.
Through my podcast, I met Newton Cheng who serves as the 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 go public about taking mental health leave in 2021. Cheng explained that he found a model in his former Google colleague Daryll Henrich.
“He’s a VP and a 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 have [Henrich] shared his story company-wide, but Google’s L&D team took his story and incorporated it into a key manager training course. The story stuck in my memory for 10 years before I experienced similar struggles, and it helped me feel less alone when I finally needed it.”
I tracked down Henrich, curious about the origins of a story that clearly influenced so many. Henrich, a former VP of engineering at Google, didn’t think his journey to mental wellness at work had to be as difficult as it turned out to be. But at that time, he had few role models.
When Henrich first started experiencing anxiety and depression in 2006, he felt alone. “There’s no one in the industry that I can look at and say, ‘Oh, there’s an example of someone who was able to go through or integrate that experience and still thrive.'”
His recovery process was slow. “I don’t take medicine. And I believe now in retrospect, it took me a longer slog through recovery. But I’m stubborn. I asked my therapist at one point, When am I, quote, unquote, ‘better?’ It’s not like, Oh, I got over the cold.
“It got to the point where it’s been so long and I’ve lost my baseline, and I don’t remember what normal feels like. The therapist said, ‘It started to heal as it became something that happened to you rather than something that happened to you. But it will always be with you.’ And he said that when I start 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 quickly promoted, and in his late twenties, managed a staff of 45. At that time, he also began to notice troubling physical symptoms and mood swings that worried him.
These were signs of anxiety, but Henrich ignored them until “it got so bad that obsessive thoughts about my health led to severe hypochondria, which led to panic disorder and a night in the hospital.” After this, he started therapy and was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. Henrich called 2006-2008 the worst period of his life, where he was constantly worried that everything he had built at Google was at risk.
“I’m worried about going from a future rockstar to what I consider to be a weakling,” Henrich said. His struggle with mental health is a source of horror and shame. “Everything I looked at seemed invincible. I put other Google executives on pedestals. I feel like I have no one to talk to.
“The track I’m on is unsustainable and interrupted by this experience is a taste of humble pie. But it forces me to address life habits and work habits that are completely unsustainable and really damaging to me.
Looking back, Henrich is grateful for the experience. And when she started sharing her story, she realized that she had become the model she wanted to be.
It was when one of his direct reports approached 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 across Google, and incorporates her mental health journey into the management training courses she is most in demand to deliver.
“In addition to my work, which is running a large chunk of Google’s internal systems, I make that my side hustle, internally talking about it or if it’s just talking to people sent to my path as the network grows. And finally, teaching leadership classes. The first or second slide in every leadership class I teach is to take care of yourself. It’s ‘put your mask on won’t help anything else’. And literally, any public speaking I do within Google includes it.
Henrich’s story went viral on the Google Intranet. “People tell me it’s brave, and it feels like it must be wrong for my career. Sharing my story has never ruined my career, and has actually led to a lot of improvement for my career.
What is Henrich? Kelly Greenwood, CEO of workforce mental health nonprofit Mind Share Partners, calls a leader an ally. The story of an ally leader is a real, vulnerable, and supportive message that includes a personal experience with mental health, which can range from high stress to burnout to grief to a diagnosis of status. 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 see with Henrich, the leader’s allies help normalize mental health challenges at work, and reduce stigma. They signal that it’s ok to experience mental health challenges, and most importantly, they model mental health.
Henrich credits his recovery from mental illness with his transformation as a leader who eventually built a group of thousands. He developed empathy as a boss. “Good human qualities as a leader create a safe and compassionate place where people want to work,” he said.